Book Review: The Vitruvian Heir

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.

Vitruvian cover

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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.

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