The Vitruvian Heir by L.S. Kilroy is a tantalizing steampunk dystopian novel in which a repressive government has taken control of the United States and reverted it back to Edwardian and Victorian sensibilities. Religious extremism and Imperialistic rule darken what might otherwise have resembled a fairy-tale coming of age story. Our young heroine Lore must choose from the few options allowed to her if she hopes to survive in this harsh world and save any of her friends.
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The production value is very solid and professional and the few snippets of silhouetted art (both in the cover and the section breaks) set a nice tone of intrigue with a hint of guile. Kilroy is no slouch in the editing department either, having layered the novel with complex emotional subtext and poignant social implications that weave in and out of the narrative deftly. But for all that, her heroine, Lorelei Fetherston, stands confidently at the forefront, her thoughtful but resilient nature so clearly in focus that it’s hard to believe the novel wasn’t written in first person.
Not unlike her fairy-tale forebears, Lore must acquiesce to her overbearing parents and the social norms under which she is trapped. Namely, she is betrothed to Gideon, the wrong one of her two childhood best friends (Fallon whom she loves is heir to the Empire) and must settle for veiled flirtations and unspoken feelings. Her grandmother leaves her a series of MacGuffins to follow which puts her in touch with an old inventor who helps Lore peel back the layers of propaganda concealing the true history of Vitruvia and its sexist oppression. It’s quaint but reads better than it should due to strong adolescent characterization. It teeters on melodrama but Lore’s reactionism and moods felt warranted by her age.
#@&! gets real though at graduation when Lore and her wayward friend Sawyer, along with the whole assembly are interrupted by the impromptu execution of a pair of beloved schoolteachers caught in an illicit (read: lesbian) relationship, for which no one can protest for fear of retribution. When Lore tries to dissuade Sawyer from her secret trysts with a clergyman, it’s made clear that her punishment might also include genital mutilation. More classical scenes like ditching the maid to accommodate a secret rendezvous with Fallon carry an extra layer of danger as a result. If these sorts of horrors are already being set up, there’s no way to predict the kind of consequences waiting behind any given plot twist.
Especially considering the vague yet omnipresent yoctosteam particles that could at any moment catch them breaking decorum. Yocto spies could be anywhere. On the other hand, like fairy-tale magic, Kilroy uses them for almost anything, including invisibility (“innocuous concealment”), clockwork animals to pull carriages, or even the little cartoon squirrels that hover around Lore’s head and bicker with her. They’re more fantasy than sci-fi, and they blur the lines between the trite Young Adult conventions Kilroy tries so hard to stay within and the adult sexist themes she secretly wants to dig into.
That may be Kilroy’s biggest weakness, that she can’t keep up with her own ambition. Adults might be put off by the melodrama of the various love triangles and the on-the-nose feminist nightmare she’s concocted to critique sexism, but younger readers might be put off by the backstory digressions of gang rape and forced abortions (“safely” implied without gratuitous language but not exactly subtle either). Conservative readers might be tempted to marginalize it as preachy, but Kilroy is nothing if not focused on the story at hand, and in her defense it’s all very intricately justified by the plot and the characters.
Some of the political associations and allegiances got a little murky for me, but most of the characters turn out to be pretty well rounded by the end, even if they seem conventional at first. I honestly wouldn’t have minded a few more scenes here and there to flesh them out a little better and give them time to grow on us. Lore and Sawyer carry a lot of the weight, fortunately, but new friends and love interests like Avery never get the page time they need to become as endearing.
After running off to join the Escadrille, a team of elite revolutionaries disguised as Shakespearian actors outside Vitruvia, the structure of the novel meanders a little, too. Kilroy makes some unnecessary chronological switcheroos, attempting to harvest the benefits of en media res, but in the middle of the novel (Parts One and Three are almost completely absent of this). Adding journal entries as Lore begins to record the backstories of her fellow spies and assassins only muddles the structure further, since they occur in the midst of scenes already in flashback. But these digressions are saved by their inevitable relevance and the fact that the overall chaotic structure does in fact add an element of unpredictability to this tumultuous phase of Lore’s life.
It all comes full circle in Part Three when Lore’s past catches up with her present and Kilroy neatly pays off a lot of abandoned world building and plot threads from Part One. Even Gideon and Fallon, and many of the other throwaway characters we met along the way, prove to be unexpectedly compelling and relevant to the conclusion. After teetering between a playful fairy-tail and an adult dystopia, I was hoping for the same kind of profound yet sublime twist ending of Frank Herbert’s Dune, where the victory is complicated and controversial. The ending she gives us may seem conventional on the surface but it’s still very meticulously executed and well played out.
Conclusion: 4 out of 5 stars. Despite some mediocre organizational choices in the middle, and some secondary characters who needed more scenes to flourish, Kilroy builds a unique world every bit as frightening as Orwell’s 1984 out of the basic building blocks of a classic fantasy. An inspiring coming of age story for any young girl struggling to navigate complicated social expectations. It may be a little heavy at times, but she somehow keeps it inspiring and YA appropriate without ever compromising her ambitious vision.
Recommended Reading: The Brothers Grimm Complete Tales