The Lady Astronomer was written by Katy O’Dowd and first published in 2012. It is an alternative history novel based loosely around the life of Caroline Hershel, embellished with fantastical steampunk elements.
Lucretia lives a busy life. She is well known throughout the town of Bath for her soprano singing voice and the fine hats that she makes. On top of this, she spends her free time caring for her dysfunctional family – brothers Freddie and Al, Leibniz the lemur and Orion the owl – and studying the stars from the roof of their home.
When her Freddie receives funding from the King to build a forty-foot high telescope, she is forced to leave her business and move with him to Slough in order to be closer to the court. Intelligent and resourceful, Lucretia has little trouble in getting their new home up and running.
However, as misfortune strikes and delays the completion of the Forty-Foot, Lucretia is taken hostage by the King in a well-meaning attempt to get Freddie to work faster. The Lady Astronomer has never been exposed to life in the royal court before and soon finds it to be far more cut-throat than she could ever have imagined. As her stay lengthens, it becomes increasingly apparent that if the telescope is not completed quickly then she could easily lose her life.
The Lady Astronomer is a truly breath-taking novel. O’Dowd has a wonderful grasp of language and manages to create a world that is both beautiful and imaginative. The steampunk elements of the story really do add a unique flavour, giving the novel the feel of a fairy tale. This is a world of clockwork orchestras, mechanical prosthetics and steam-powered pigs. It quickly becomes apparent that the author had a very clear of how her universe functions and this world was gradually unveiled to the reader through dialogue. There is no clunky exposition in this novel. It is fast moving and never bogged down by over-descriptive text.
However, as much as I did enjoy reading The Lady Astronomer, I must admit that it does have a few rather major problems. For starters, I could not decide who the target audience was. The impression that I got from its Amazon page was that it was aimed readers from middle grade and up, and the general tone of the novel did reflect this. However, there was an awful lot of swearing (Lucretia has a real liking for the word ‘arse’) and some of the words used in the story – most notably ‘bonhomie’, ‘effluvium’ and ‘apoplectic’ – seem a trifle too complex for younger readers.
In addition to this, the story is incredibly slow burning. In the first half of the novel, there is little by the way of a plot. It feels more like a series of events in Lucretia’s life that are loosely connected. The running thread between them is the gradual construction of the Forty-Foot, however this largely occurs out of scene while Lucretia is preparing for visiting royalty or cleaning up after the kitchen is destroyed by a primate on a sugar-high (rather surprisingly, this is not an exaggeration). Lucretia is barely present for any of the building of the telescope, which seems a bit odd as it is the MacGuffin that drives the plot.
While these little asides are still a lot of fun to read, the story does not feel as though it is actually building to anything until the half-way mark when Lucretia arrives at the Clockwork Court. In this section, the novel actually does begin to follow a little story arc and even takes a surprisingly dark turn. However, it does feel as though this half of the novel is lacking something fundamental. Although the motives of those who have it in for her are loosely explained, it still feels as though they act for very petty reasons. I can’t really understand why someone would be so cruel to a teenage girl, just because she is a guest of the King. Isn’t everyone staying in the court a guest of the King? They just seem to be mustachio-twirlingly evil. The end of the story also feels as though it wraps up a little too neatly – with all of the bad guys getting their just deserts and all of the good guys receiving lavish gifts. Although this incredibly up-beat ending is nice for younger readers, I have the feeling that many teenagers may find it all just a little too twee.
The shallow characterisation of the secondary cast is one of the novel’s largest stumbling points. Freddie and Al were very memorable characters, though I did think that more would be made of Al’s maimed hand as this was another thread that seemed to be largely without purpose in the end. However, the same care was not taken with developing the rest of the characters. I think this was largely due to the fact that so many of them were introduced in a very short space of time, as they did after a while begin to merge into one. This was not helped by the fact that the author chose to refer to most of them by initial only. Sometimes I had to stop and think for a moment who Mr E or Ms O were, especially if they had been absent from the story for a spell, as I was constantly confusing then with other initialled characters.
The lack of detail was especially frustrating as there were some characters that I really wanted to learn more about. Rammstein, in particular, was woefully unimportant in the greater scheme of things and this really disappointed me. He had great chemistry with Lucretia and it would have been nice to see their relationship develop further. Similarly, the Family O were hinted to have a fascinating backstory and yet this was only briefly touched upon before the novel’s focus moved on to other things.
Thankfully, Lucretia received plenty of development as the story progressed and made a wonderful heroine. Although frail and not conventionally attractive, her intelligence, wit and strength of character made her an incredibly strong protagonist. I personally always enjoy reading novels with intelligent female leads. All too often, authors view strength as being a physical attribute and completely overlook the appeal of a female character who is an intellectual equal to the men. It was also kind of nice to see a protagonist with a disability that was never portrayed in a negative light. Lucretia fully accepts that her eye is damaged (necessitating the need of a mechanical device to enable her to see) and never laments her condition.
So, what did I think? Well, while I have to admit that the novel is not perfect due to severe issues with the pacing and depth of the secondary characters, I must say that I did truly enjoy reading the story. It portrayed 18th Century England in a wonderfully whimsical manner through the eyes of an intelligent female protagonist. All in all, the novel was short, sweet and certainly worth your time.