First up, I should probably do one of those disclaimers about how I got this book free in exchange for an honest review; so—I got this book free, here is my honest review!
I’m going to do this review a little bit differently, because I feel like a straight up list of likes/dislikes (like the ones in my other reviews) can get boring to read, especially if you haven’t read the book yourself.
Instead, I’ll be discussing the book without giving away any major plot points (I hope). First though, I feel the need to include some trigger/content warnings, because this book does not shy away from some sensitive topics.
If you have a problem with references to, or descriptions of, sexual violence1, you should probably give this book a miss. Likewise if you would prefer to avoid references to dismemberment, violence, death, murder, imprisonment, or racism. I promise the book isn’t as edgy as I just made it sound, but I’d rather allow you to decide what you want to read about before you buy the book.
So! That rather depressing beginning aside, let’s discuss The Engine Woman’s Light. I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of this book to review (thanks to everyone at Books That Make You!), so I can comment on the physical book, rather than just the words.
So pretty! Ignore how staged this picture I took is!
The book is a standard sized paperback, with a lovely, matte cover and eye-catching artwork. I’m really glad there was no attempt to shy away from the fact that the narrator is a badass woman of colour, there’s no man on the cover to make Juanita seem like a sidekick or eye candy, just two versions of the kickass Latina mystic traveller you’re about to go on an adventure with.
My only complaint about the cover (and it’s ridiculously minor, but in the interests of transparency I’ll include it) is that I assumed the skull would have more of a role in the story than it ended up having. I was wrong.
The synopsis is included below.
A mystical vision of an airship appears to fifteen-year-old Juanita. The long-dead captain commands her to prevent California’s thrown-away people—including young children—from boarding trains to an asylum. That institution’s director plots murder to reduce the inmate population. Yet to save innocent lives Juanita must take lives of the corrupt. How can she reconcile her assignment with her belief in the sacredness of all human life? And will she survive to marry her betrothed?
Juanita sets out despite inner trepidation to sabotage the railroad. Her ancestor Billy, the ghost of a steam locomotive engineer, guides her. Then bit by bit, she discovers the gut-wrenching truths all her ancestors neglected to reveal.
Come visit Juanita’s world—an alternate nineteenth-century California—where spirits meet steampunk, where both love and anger emanate from beyond the grave.
Moving on now to the book itself, I’ve already mentioned that the main character is a woman of colour, but she’s not the only minority present in the book. Set in 1800s California, the book features a setting and culture with strong Native American and Mexican influences, multiple characters with Native American or Mexican heritage, and includes several characters that are explicitly stated to be members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The world this book is set in is fascinating. The time period alone would be interesting, the addition of supernatural and steampunk touches only add to this. The atmosphere (and coming-of-age style of storyline) of the book reminded me a little of Laura Anne Gilman’s The Devil’s West series2, though the forces that propel the plot in The Engine Woman’s Light are more overt.
In the rich world Laurel Anne Hill has created, mystics like Juanita serve the Shadow World (and the spirits that reside there), doing the bidding of such forces in return for wisdom and power from beyond the grave. An intriguing set-up, and not one you encounter often in fantasy. Protagonists usually have more autonomy; but Juanita’s struggle to reconcile the demands of her calling and her own principles, or those of her loved ones, was a key source of emotional conflict that led to her growth over the course of the book (and if you’ve read any of my other posts, you know I’m a sucker for character development). Juanita’s faith and calling are a core facet of her personality, and serve as a source of strength for her throughout the extremely trying times she experiences in The Engine Woman’s Light.
My favourite line (the inclusion of which is more for me than you, because it’s meaningless without context) is on page 287 and actually made me laugh.
“Next time,” I said, “don’t lose your hat.”
The book starts with a bang, and doesn’t hesitate to skip ahead to keep the tension high. If you know anything about trains3, I’m sure the descriptions will be even more impressive to you, though train-knowledge isn’t really necessary to appreciate the high-stakes and obstacles faced by the characters in this book.
The characters are the best part of any novel, and untangling the twisted layers of relationships between them is always enjoyable. The Engine Woman’s Light certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front, and connections and entanglements are still being revealed almost to the last pages.
Critiquing the plot itself now—the call to action was very clear, and if you’re a reader who dislikes ambiguity about the end goal of the protagonist, fear not! That is certainly not an issue. The stakes are clear and high, and only increase as the book continues.
The conclusion was satisfying4, with several intriguing hooks that could lead to an interesting sequel. I want to read more about Juanita, now that she’s becoming more confident and competent. I want to read more about Guide, now he’s achieved some measure of peace with his past. I want to read more about the person who is revealed to have survived5, and the people and places he’s been with over the course of this book. I want to learn more about Ramon, and the Mendozas, and the asylums.
I don’t know if there is a sequel currently being planned, but the ending of the book most certainly cries out for a continuation. Given the number of awards this book has won (found here on the Amazon page for the novel), I can’t be alone in wishing for more.
So! If you were just scrolling down for the rating, here it is: 4 stars.
If you’re interested in ghosts, steampunk novels, coming of age stories, diverse characters, novels with mystical elements or stories of the old American West: The Engine Woman’s Light could be the novel for you.
1Including incest and child abuse
2 High praise, if that wasn’t clear from context
3I certainly don’t, so no judgements here
4Minor sidenote: I cannot stand books that begin a quest, and don’t wrap it up over the course of that book, instead dragging it out over several. It rarely works well. Fortunately, this book does not do that!
5I know that’s an awkward sentence, but I don’t want to include spoilers by accident