THE LADY ASTRONOMER by Katy O’Dowd. Book review

ladyTHE LADY ASTRONOMER by Katy O’Dowd, Untold Press, paperback, eBook,

Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)

Lucretia, the lady astronomer of the title, is actually a hat-maker, at least to begin with, albeit a hat-maker who spends her nights on rooftops gazing at the stars. When her brother, a renowned astronomer, is commissioned by the king to build a grand telescope, she is pulled into the enterprise after being introduced to the king as her brother’s assistant.

Adjusting to the machinations of life within the court is challenging for fish-out-of-water Lucretia, uncertain of the protocols, her place in proceedings and whom to trust.  Without giving out too much of a spoiler, soon events take a precarious turn and Lucretia finds herself in dire jeopardy. Will the huge telescope be built in time? Even if it is, will Lucretia be able to earn her release?

But fear not! Lucretia is aided by her brother the astronomer, her other brother (a notable inventor), an eagle owl named Orion and a lemur called Leibniz – both of which are surprisingly intelligent companions, bringing to this reviewer’s mind the relationship between Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon. The colourful cast does not end there: the world is also populated by bizarre clockwork automatons, a seven-strong gang of height-disadvantaged not-so gentlemen and their height-advantaged boss, and others besides.

So far, so far-fetched, and deliberately so. This is a tall tale well-told, full of imagineering and eccentricity. If there are times when the incredible is not particularly… um, credible, the story’s lightness of touch carries the reader along; don’t worry too much whether your disbelief is still hanging where you left it, just go with it and enjoy the tale’s exuberance.

The setting is picaresque and quirky with flavours of steampunk in the mechanized automata and other touches of tech (and the obligatory eyepiece); this intermingles with a dash of fantasy in a world sufficiently well realized for a book which sets out to entertain without being overly concerned with world-building. The hint of romance jarred slightly but didn’t linger long enough to mar the broth.

The plot is somewhat disjointed at first; early chapters are rather fragmented with no certain sense of events and several leaps between storylines that take a little while for the reader to catch up with. Whilst this could be a tactically deliberate move to create intrigue, the lack of definition regarding ‘who, what and why’ means this is a strategy that could potentially backfire, leaving some readers behind. Past the first third of the book the plot’s engine fires on all cylinders and is well oiled with incidents and intrigues; from this point forward the story runs like clockwork, changing gears and moving at a brisk enough pace to its conclusion.

This is a fresh and diverting read aimed at a YA readership, though the younger end of this market will enjoy this the most. This is the author’s debut novel and she demonstrates that fantasy has more to offer than swords, wizards and dragons, and although I have nothing against those this made a refreshing alternative.

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