In the dark industrial city of 1882 New York, Avery Kohl is a girl trying to get by. She works at an IronWorks factory to support she and her father who are still reeling from the institutionalization of her mother in the notorious Tombs, an aptly named prison and asylum.
But Avery has a secret. She keeps her head down fearing that she’s suffering from the same madness that took her mother when she starts seeing visions. She buries this secret down until it presents itself in a workplace explosion that reveals her secret powers. Now she must hide in the city to avoid the Crows that run the Tombs.
I must state up front that I had high expectations for this book. It was a historical fiction with a brilliant premise full of intrigue, madness, and the spiritual supernatural. But I was greatly disappointed. Actually, disappointment is not a strong enough word for how I felt about this book in the end. I kinda hated it but I really hate to use that word but it’s how I feel.
Every time I picked up The Tombs, I felt like I was reading a series of events, not an actual story. The story is a historical fiction with some slight steampunk leanings. There’ are airships and advanced clockwork robotics but that’s not really delved into. (This is a theme, by the way)
The book reads like a cookie-cutter historical fiction. It’s obvious that Deborah Schaumberg did some research into the times but the history isn’t integrated that well.
Take, for instance, the rise of unions in response to unreasonable work conditions. Avery works as a welder in an IronWorks factory. She’s apparently so good that despite the obvious sexism that would arise in such a profession of the era, she’s kept on the force. But the narrative really never explores her position in an all-male profession or how she dealt with some the sexism that naturally comes with that. The narrative never shows why she’s passionate about her job and it doesn’t help that she frames the job as a burden to support her alcoholic father. More egregious is the narrative’s treatment of the history of unions and the reductiveness it takes to both sides of the conflict. Avery never personally gets herself involved. She’s let in on the secret union meetings but she never takes part in them and the narrative never thoughtfully delves into the nuances of the issue. Instead, we get mustache twisting industrialists and rioting protestors to push through a message that “We are all people so why can’t we get along?”
A lot of the historical detail is treated this way. It’s referenced but not thoughtfully explored. Sexism, racism, lingering civil war tension, and the horrible conditions in mental health institutions are paid some lip service but before we really delve into those topics we’re skipping to the next thing. The history is just window dressing to a weak narrative of personal growth, self-acceptance, and a surface level screed on human compassion.
I don’t think that the characters were entirely fleshed out either. The cast in this is huge and juggling all those people around is a huge effort. But you never know how important a character is. Minor characters are given more of a spotlight. Major characters are shoved into the background. A random love triangle is shoehorned in just because and obvious dumb mistakes were made by the main character a little too much for my liking.
I guess I’ve made no secret of my dislike of this book. I’m very big on my historical in my fiction. I’m rather sensitive to it. If you’re curious, I say pick it up. One critic did say it was a good cross between the Gangs of New York and Cassandra Clare. If you like either of those…maybe go for it. I mean, I don’t see it but okay.