MMGM and #IMWAYR (1/25/2021): City of Secrets by Victoria Ying
I hope everyone is managing to persevere through life! I am currently in a Very Stressful Period of my life, but it should settle down into a Regularly Stressful Period within a couple of weeks. Before I move on to the post, I want to remind everyone that (as was pointed out to me by Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers) the American Library Association is announcing their kidlit awards (the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Schneider, etc.) on Monday at 8 AM, Central time at this link (it will have already happened by the time most of you are reading this post). Keep an eye out for the winners—I'm definitely curious to see what gets selected!
In an absolutely shocking turn of events, I am reviewing another graphic novel. I know this is definitely not what you were expecting, since I certainly have no history of reviewing graphic novels, but this is what I'll be doing today with my review of City of Secrets by Victoria Ying.
This book is clearly an MG book (the protagonists, Ever and Hannah, are around MG age), but I would caution readers that there is violence, some of which involves terrifyingly sharp knives and terrifyingly sharp dogs' teeth (though no actual gore). I do think MG readers will be fine with these aspects, but I want to make everyone aware nonetheless.
|For some reason, Ever and Hannah|
look different on the cover than
they do in the book (which is fine,
but still weird).
Back in August, the excellent #IMWAYR blogger Lisa Maucione at Literacy on the Mind recommended this graphic novel, and as I can easily be convinced to read pretty much any MG graphic novel in existence, I picked up a copy of this one! Released in July and with a sequel (City of Illusion) coming in 2021, City of Secrets is set in the steampunk (I'll explain what that means in a minute) city of Oskars and features two protagonists, Ever and Hannah. Ever is an orphan who was tasked by his father to protect the secret held within a safe in the city's Switchboard Operating Facility. And it's a good thing Ever's protecting it, because quite a few people are trying to murder Ever and steal whatever is inside the safe (which hasn't exactly made Ever trusting of others). Hannah, whose father owns the Switchboard Operating Facility, constantly gets herself embroiled in adventures (and tries to ignore subsequent expectations for her to become more ladylike). As Ever hides out inside the Switchboard Operating Facility and employees of the facility (like Lisa and Madame Alexander) become more and more suspicious, Hannah's adventuring inside the facility leads her to become embroiled with Ever in a quest to figure out what is inside the safe and save the city of Oskars in the process.
Oftentimes, we read books to broaden our horizons and learn about new perspectives. But sometimes, we read books just to have a good time, and while City of Secrets did not teach me any spectacular life lessons or anything, it is absolutely a great time! One of the great things about graphic novels as compared to prose/verse books is that they can use illustrations, art style, and color to create a "vibe," if you will. City of Secrets makes great use of these techniques to create its steampunk vibe. Steampunk, for those of you who are unaware, is basically what would have happened if we made a society by advancing the technological innovations from the 1800s and early 1900s (like clockwork, steam engines, telegraphs, etc.) instead of creating new ones (like microprocessors and smartphones). If you look out your window and see large gears, railroads, or the wealth/poverty of the Gilded Age, you might be living in a steampunk world. Author/illustrator Victoria Ying does a great job creating the steampunk city of Oskars, from the Switchboard Operating Facility (I really hope MG readers don't think that Ying invented switchboards for this story) with its numerous mechanisms to hot-air balloons, horse-riding, marketplaces, and giant safes. (And the wealth/poverty disparity is also apparent, if mostly unexplored, in Ever being homeless and digging food out of dumpsters while Hannah lives in a mansion with a fountain out front.) Ying's utterly gorgeous art also helps set the vibe—the art has a very 1920s feel, appearing almost painting-like and far from the "digital" style of other graphic novels, and the golds, browns, and occasional vivid reds of the color scheme make for beautiful pages. Make sure to look at the Amazon preview of this book here. Also, good news—the faces aren't weird! I swear, in some graphic novels, people's faces just irritate me to no end; I get that they're supposed to be cartoonish, but somehow they veer into unnerving territory. This book does not do that, thank goodness! (If anyone knows what I'm talking about, let me know in the comments!)
Let's get into the characters and plot a bit now (without spoilers, of course). The interesting thing about the graphic novel "Renaissance" kicked off by Raina Telgemeier with Smile so many years ago is that it started off with books like Smile that, to me, feel very rooted in the world of prose books (they have things like narration, many plot events, plenty of words to go with the illustrations, etc.), but then it began to spread and bolster up books that feel somewhat more concerned with creating something visually beautiful and evocative than with reproducing the format and complexity of regular books. There's nothing wrong with those sorts of graphic novels, but as someone who tends to read more for the story and characters, those kinds of books don't appeal to me as much. City of Secrets is really interesting because, at a glance, it seems like one of those stories. You spend a lot more time looking at the art in this book than at the words (there certainly isn't an excess of them), and there's no narration, which in many other graphic novels leads to protagonists that feel underdeveloped and underexplored. And yet, City of Secrets succeeds where other graphic novels fail at combining art and words to actually develop characters and plot while retaining the primarily-visual experience that other graphic novels lack. First of all, Ying clearly started off with a good idea of who her protagonists are. Ever and Hannah seem like very different kids. Ever has little trust in others (because others usually try to kill him), and he would much rather remain self-reliant than allow others to help him. Hannah is fearless: she is friendly to practically everyone and considers chasing and climbing and going who-knows-where just a beloved fact of daily life. What Ever and Hannah have in common is their bravery (not fearlessness, which Ever lacks, but bravery), their willingness to do pretty much anything to achieve a goal (even if what they have to do could put them in enormous danger). Small details (like Ever's nightmares or Hannah's trips to the horse stables) tucked into the story further develop these two characters, and I also have to say that Ying has ensured that their facial expressions are always spot-on and never ambiguous. Even without words, we know what these two kids are thinking, helping us learn about them and stay in touch with what is going on. Because City of Secrets is a quick read, we don't spend enough time with Ever and Hannah for them to become incredibly three-dimensional with many little details and complexities. But Ying ensures that what we do see of them pulls readers further and further to their side, rooting for them all the way.
Now, you might be thinking, "I would expect characters with that level of depth from any book! What's with all the hullabaloo about this one?" Great question. I'm emphasizing this stuff for a couple of reasons. One is that, in the graphic novel world, characters with reasonable amounts of depth are not as much of a guarantee, and considering that most other characters in this book aside from switchboard operator Lisa are mostly unexplored, I wanted to point out that there is no skimping on the protagonists here. The other reason is that City of Secrets is not solely a character-driven story—it is also enormously plot-driven, which also means good characters are not a given. So let's talk plot. If you like action, you are in luck here. We get quite a few exciting chases, made more interesting by the moving buildings and platforms that are just a fact of life in a steampunk world. We also get some clever fighting moves (I don't want to spoil much, but let's just say there are some items I did not know could be weaponized until I read this book). If you like mysteries and clues, the race to unlock the safe means that there are several of those here as well—secret codes, secret societies, and more. While I don't tend to be a reader who recognizes foreshadowing and predicts things before they happen, I can say there is just enough foreshadowing in this book for me to think, "Ohhhhh—that's what that meant! That's clever!" There are a few twists and revelations throughout the story that keep things fresh and interesting (I love one panel where, when Ever and Hannah learn one of the twists, they make manga-esque surprised faces—you can practically hear them saying, "WhhhhhhaaaaaAAAAAATTTT??!!??!!"). Finally, if you like world-building...well, the world-building here is more spare than in some other graphic novels (like The Deep & Dark Blue), but I honestly appreciated that we weren't overwhelmed with unnecessary details that, if forgotten (as they inevitably would be by me), would make the story confusing. I felt some of the previously mentioned details (the Switchboard Operating Facility, hot-air balloons, marketplaces, etc.) were plenty sufficient to put me into this unique world. One last thing: the ending of the story, while somewhat open-ended so as to make space for the upcoming sequel, is pretty good overall: despite my initial "that's it?" reaction after discovering the safe's secret, I quickly realized overall that it is, in fact, quite a cool secret, and I also appreciated that, character-wise, the ending puts both Ever and Hannah in a very satisfying place.
I wouldn't say that City of Secrets is a book that transcends genres or expectations and should be read by everyone. But if this book does sound appealing to you, then good news—it delivers on what it promises! With compelling protagonists, plenty of action and mystery, interesting twists, and beautiful art, City of Secrets is a fun, low-frustration story that makes for a fun time of reading!
My rating is: Pretty good!
Update (2/5/2021): My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!