The Dark UnwindingFeatured
When Katharine Tulman's inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London.
Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she grows to care for deeply. And her choices are made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and fears for her own sanity.
As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle's world at stake, but also the state of England as Katharine knows it. With twists and turns at every corner, this heart-racing adventure will captivate readers with its intrigue, thrills, and romance.
Her characters are varied and intriguing. There is prim and proper Katharine, the narrator, who is forced to choose between protecting her own grim future or that of her Uncle and his 900 tenants. There is wonderfully eccentric and childlike Uncle Tully, who brightened every scene he was in while also contributing a note of sadness. Katharine’s wretched Aunt Alice is the “villain” hanging over the entire story, concerned only with securing wealth for her son and making Katharine as miserable as possible, and every mention of her made me grit my teeth in frustration. Then we have the tenants of the estate, the dark and brooding Lane, with his eye for faces and unwavering loyalty to Mr. Tully; mute little Davy, who sees more than anyone realizes, and his constant companion, the rabbit Bertram; Mrs. Jefferies, who protects those she loves with a fiery fierceness; Ben Aldridge, whose fascination with Mr. Tully’s automatons seemed to overshadow everything else; and Mary Brown, Katharine’s maid, whose constant chatter filled many a silence.
Sharon spends just the right amount of time dropping careful clues about what’s going on that I was never lost, but not so many that I knew exactly what was going on. A huge part of the story is Katharine’s inner battle to figure out if she’s losing her mind, and I was right there with her, questioning things that had happened, wondering what was real, and clinging to logic and reason like a lifeline. Meanwhile, there’s tiny questions and inconsistencies that she notices around the estate, and tries to investigate, but we’re left always wondering if those things had really happened, or if they were imagined. It was extremely well done, and I felt very satisfied when the story wrapped up and answered all those questions.
Probably my favorite aspect of the story was Katharine’s interactions with her Uncle Tully. As this story is set centuries ago, when people like him were simply classified as insane, the book never comes out and says what his exact condition is, but I’m guessing it’s autism. He also has some extraordinary savant capabilities, including a penchant for mathematics and his ability to invent amazing clockwork automatons that seem to defy the laws of physics. There is nothing supernatural about what he does; it is simply the outcome of his wonderfully unique brain. Katharine herself seems to suffer from a bit of OCD, even though she doesn’t appear to realize it, and watching the two of them together was beautiful. I could probably have read an entire book consisting solely of their conversations and still been satisfied.
But of course, there’s more to the story than that. There’s mystery and intrigue, a touch of adventure, and a hint of romance. I think a problem the book has is setting expectations accordingly (which is not the book or Sharon’s fault); because it’s different than most other books out there, it’s being lumped in with other stories that are nothing like it. The book is being marketed as “steampunk adventure,” which it’s absolutely not, and some people are even saying there are supernatural elements, which there aren’t. If I had to classify this book, I’d say it’s kind of Victorian Gothic-Light. There’s mystery and creepiness, but no horror, and there’s romance, but nothing blatant. The stars of the book are the intensely atmospheric prose and the beautifully developed characters.
To avoid a 100% gushy review, I’ll touch on my (very few and far between) criticisms of the book. It’s a very contemplative story, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, this is not the book for you. It picks up towards the end, but most of the book unfolds very slowly. I was never bored — actually, the gradual pacing allowed me to do the wallowing I talked about — but nor was I on the edge of my seat, on pins and needles to find out what happened next. And then the ending could leave you a bit unsatisfied, depending on what you’re looking for in the book. It ties up the plot arc neatly, but leaves some emotional threads dangling. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I’ll just make the very vague statement that towards the end, something happened that broke my heart in a way I did not expect to have my heart broken in a YA book. So be warned. Sadness awaits.
But honestly, my criticisms aren’t even really criticism. They’re more “proceed with caution” signs, so you don’t rush headlong into a book that is different than what you might be expecting. But if you go in prepared, I think you’ll be in for a treat.
If you are looking for something with beautiful writing, excellent characterization, an intriguing setting, and a captivating plot that unwinds gradually and intricately, then I’d suggest you try The Dark Unwinding.
Katharine differs greatly from the majority of YA heroines: she's very practical. Though this practicality is not perhaps her natural way of being, she learned to be so in order to get through her life with minimum fuss. After her father's death, left to the guardianship of her Aunt Alice, Katherine serves essentially as a drudge. Aunt Alice reminded me heavily of the Dursleys, utterly devoted to her piggish, stupid son. With all of Alice's affection going to her precious child, she has no interest in Katharine except in what she can do for her, like manage the accounts or run errands.
Another thing that nieces are good for? Sending off to the family estate to ascertain the truth of rumors of insanity, so that one can enjoy the season. Katharine's Uncle Tulman has, so it is said, been wasting the family fortune on the interests of his diseased mind. Clearly, this cannot be allowed to stand or Alice's precious Robert will inherit less. Thus is Katherine sent off to Stranwyne, since family members can report insanity and have the touched party sent to an asylum.
Once at Stranwyne, Katherine discovers that the situation pales in comparison to what she and her Aunt were expecting. Her Uncle Tully does appear to be quite mad, but the scale of his madness surpasses anything anticipated. He spends his time in the production of toys, clockwork creatures. In order to do so, two whole towns have grown up around the estate. Where she expected to find twenty-some perhaps in his employ, she finds hundreds.
Out of practicality, out of a desire to save the estate's fortunes for Robert, who she has some hope of manipulating enough to gain some amount of independence for herself, Katherine plans to depart and report her Uncle immediately. Before she can do so, however, she finds herself charmed by several townsfolk, all of whom work to convince her not to do so, as does the family solicitor, who swears that things are on the mend.
Due to their pleas, Katherine agrees to stay for a full month, ignoring her aunt's letters and getting to know her Uncle. What she discovers is that Stranwyne is a magical place, full of tunnels and secret rooms. I want so badly to explore this estate! Plus, she finds out that Uncle Tully, while certainly a special snowflake, sees the world with childlike eyes, able to see beauty where others do not. At his best, he is utterly sweet, funny and disarming.
Plot-wise, very little came as any sort of a surprise to me. I had the antagonist pegged from the first appearance, as well as the romantic lead. I say this not to denigrate the story, but to stress that the plotting is not where the magic lies. The beauty of The Dark Unwinding is in the characters, who were all brilliantly well-drawn, with perhaps one notable exception. The most charming scene for me, without a doubt, made me wish I knew how to roller skate; there was magic in that scene.
If you're looking for an action-packed, steampunk adventure, The Dark Unwinding is not the book you want. However, if you're looking for a well-written story populated by quirky characters and brilliant setting, look no further.