In The Engine's Child, Holly Phillips has created a rich and interesting world where everyone quite literally lives on an island in a vast ocean. The intrigue among the three main factions--the conservatives who insist on keeping with traditional ways, those who want to find a way back to the land of their ancestors using magic portals, and those who want to master the ocean and find new land--is what fuels most of the story. Unfortunately, the end result left me feeling like Phillips failed to exploit the full potential of her beautiful world.
It's not the unfamiliar terms--mostly honorifics--that fazed me; Phillips handily included a glossary. Rather, there are some unfamiliar concepts that never get explained in a satisfactory manner. The protagonist, Moth, is uniquely attuned to the mystical force called the mundab, which also happens to be the name of the unending ocean that surrounds the island. She works with an expansionist group to build an engine that somehow channels this mundab into energy to power a vessel. The nature of the mundab and the shadowy manifestations associated with it remains vague, at least to me, for the entire book.
Similarly, Phillips' descriptions of the setting never satisfied me. Although I'm interested in the social structures of this world she's created, I have a very poor idea of how it looks and is geographically organized. While I'll never say that maps are essential to fantasy books, I wouldn't turn one down, especially not for this book. How big is the island? Where are these towers located in "the bay"? A simple map showing me the relative locations of various settings, such as the bastion and the tidal, would have gone a long way toward drawing me into the events in the book. The lack of sufficient description detracted from my enjoyment of the drama taking place in those settings.
Few of the characters held my attention for very long. None are well developed beyond a few of the main characters, such as Moth and her mother. I never got a clear sense of who the antagonists were supposed to be, and even the characters who I thought were the antagonists, such as Lord Ghar, had pretty flimsy motivations, at least from what I learned about them.
Indeed, the deficiencies of The Engine's Child all stem from what seems like a lack of depth from Phillips. Where we require specificity and analysis, we get only surface details. Exposition, which is deadly when overused, is fatally underused, and the story suffers as a result. Lacking any real history beyond a rebellion vaguely relevant to the plot, the world stands only in the present, which makes me care much less about its future.
By far the most interesting part of The Engine's Child is the world in which it is set. The island's society exists because of a tenuous and brittle social contract, and the machinations of various characters threaten that social contract's survival. I want to be immersed in this world and experience the hardships of the poor in "the tidal" and the farmers in the hadras (countryside). Ultimately, however, Phillips failed to draw me into her world; I felt always like an outsider, watching shadows of characters acting out a pantomime on the cave wall.