New York, 1882. A dark, forbidding city, and no place for a girl with unexplainable powers. Sixteen-year-old Avery Kohl pines for the life she had before her mother was taken. She fears the mysterious men in crow masks who locked her mother in the Tombs asylum for being able to see what others couldn't. Avery denies the signs in herself, focusing instead on her shifts at the ironworks factory and keeping her inventor father out of trouble. Other than secondhand tales of adventure from her best friend, Khan, an ex-slave, and caring for her falcon, Seraphine, Avery spends her days struggling to survive. Like her mother's, Avery's powers refuse to be contained. When she causes a bizarre explosion at the factory, she has no choice but to run from her lies, straight into the darkest corners of the city. Avery must embrace her abilities and learn to wield their power--or join her mother in the cavernous horrors of the Tombs. And the Tombs has secrets of its own: strange experiments are being performed on 'patients'...and no one knows why. Deborah Schaumberg's gripping debut melds history and fantasy, taking readers on a breathless trip across a teeming turn-of-the-century New York, and asks the question: Where can you hide in a city that wants you buried?
THE TOMBS by Deborah Schaumberg is a young adult novel that blends the historical fiction and fantasy genres. Set in New York City in 1882, Avery Kohl is still reeling from her new life. Once a young socialite, she now lives in the slums with her father, has dropped out of school, and has taken up a welding job to pay the bills. Meanwhile, her mother has been detained in a mental asylum, locked away with creepy guards in crow masks. When Avery starts experiencing weird visions, she realizes that her mom isn’t crazy at all, but in fact has magical abilities like her. Unfortunately, that means they are both wanted for experimentation by the head scientist of The Tombs. The exact reason is unclear to Avery, but she makes it her mission to find out.
The greatest success of this book is that it has compelling and unique characters. Every single person is distinctive, not only in the way they are described, but in the way they talk, the way they react to events, and their individual strengths and weaknesses. For instance, if I just read little Geeno’s dialogue, without any additional information, I would know that he’s a young kid either from Italy or from Italian immigrants. This is not because Schaumberg portrays him in a stereotypical way, but instead because she crafts him so well that it is extremely clear exactly who he is. As a result, the characters feel like they could be real.
Schaumberg also gives each and every character agency. No one is passive and each character is resourceful in his or her own way. Khan is protective, knows the pulse of the city, and is good at slipping away unnoticed. Katalina is brave, intelligent, and skilled at throwing knives. Avery’s father is a master inventor, and Hurricane is a natural with energy work. Every character has something to offer and enhances the story, which makes me care about what happens to them.
With that being said, there are parts of the story where I would have liked the pacing to be quicker or the scenes more exciting, but on the whole, THE TOMBS is a thoroughly enjoyable read. As someone who is familiar with New York City, it’s fun to get a glimpse, albeit fictional, into what it could have been like over a hundred years ago, particularly if magic was involved.
Filled with intrigue, adventure, romance, and all the cool steampunk flourishes a reader could want.
Schaumberg’s debut melds history and fantasy to create an absorbing world just beyond the known.