This book perplexed yet also entertained me. The Glass Sentence feels like a novel from a different era, a pulpy young adult adventure story that would already have been turned into a movie of questionable quality by the time I was still too young to appreciate it. Perhaps this is appropriate for a story that is about different eras! S.E. Grove’s storytelling is rich and creative in many ways that I will be happy to extol—yet despite having plenty of free time these past few days, I struggled to finish this novel.
It’s 1891 and the city is Boston, except it’s not our 1891 or our Boston—in this timeline, the world was hit a century ago by the Great Disruption. Different places on Earth were ripped out of different eras, such that 1891 Boston (in what is now called “the New Occident”) co-exists with the Papal States in Europe, prehistoric snows up north where my hometown would be, and a patchwork of many eras in western and central America only known as the Baldlands. In such a patchwork world, explorers and mapmakers—the latter known as cartologers—have risen to prominence, though there is always that lovely xenophobic element to contend with. Our protagonist is Sophia, daughter of missing explorers, raised by her uncle Shadrack, the most famous cartologer. But Shadrack gets kidnapped, catapulting young Sophia into a cross-country, trans-era adventure that culminates in a scramble to save possibly the very world itself.
Something that isn’t immediately obvious about this novel is how intensely deep it is in a philosophical sense. Sophia lives up to her name; she clearly loves knowledge and learning. She is a precocious heroine whose penchant for improvising, along with her ability to make allies, serves her well. But really what kept me going was the fact that with each chapter, Grove kept elevating my opinion of the novel’s themes. What starts as a simple adventure story soon turns into an ethical dilemma—if you had the power to remake the world through a map, would you do it? What if not doing it would lead to destruction? Could you destroy your current world in order to save it?
Indeed, the idea of a map so powerful it can physically affect the world it maps is a neat idea. Maps of course do have power—any political geographer can point to numerous examples throughout history of how labelling regions, drawing borders, etc., can start or end disputes. Grove translates this into a far more literal idea, however. Additionally, I really appreciate her diverse and dynamic understanding of maps. Maps have always fascinated me too, but those of us in the West sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that a map has to be a drawing on paper. Wayfinding is an excellent book on the various methods other cultures have used to get around. Grove mirrors this in The Glass Sentence, making it clear that maps need not be made on paper: they can be metal, glass, even onions. Maps can contain memories (and when you think about it, really that is what a map—someone’s memory of place—so Grove is once again just amplifying that somewhat).
So in this respect, I give The Glass Sentence a great deal of credit for creativity, originality, and embracing diverse ideas of mapmaking. All of this contributes to a more enjoyable and more fun adventure. Some affable pirates, an ally who might or might not be trustworthy, the race against the clock … all those essential adventure elements are present too.
Then why didn’t I enjoy this book more?
Part of it is simply that the pandemic is breathing down my neck particularly acutely this week, and so I had trouble focusing on a book.
But mainly, I think, the problem is a combination of pacing and characterization. There are parts of the story that dragged on; I wish we had been catapulted into the adventure sooner and with more alacrity. The end, in contrast, feels very rushed. As much as I applaud Grove’s worldbuilding overall, there were times when it felt like she was too excited to show off this world and all the inventions in it, leading to expansive exposition and descriptions that didn’t actually move forward the plot. Similarly, there is a lot of telling us about characters’ backstories without much organic integration into the main story. At times this works fine and is fairly interesting, but at other times it makes the story feel like it’s grinding to a halt. This is a five-hundred-page book that really should have been about three hundred pages, tops.
I am also perplexed by some of the timing. Sophia is thirteen. Her parents left when she was three, which suggests they’ve been gone for ten years. A letter she receives corroborates this—it’s dated 1881. Yet the cover copy of this book says her parents have been missing for eight years—now, maybe her parents left ten years ago but only dropped off the grid after two more years. However, the preview chapter for The Golden Specific mentions the letter from them was dated eight years prior. So the sequence of events is unclear to me.
Look, I don’t want to be too hard on The Glass Sentence. If you want something that is a lot of fun but also very intense, if you want a good adventure yarn, there is potential for enjoyment to be had here. However, don’t go into it expecting too much, and perhaps don’t feel bad if it’s taking you longer to read than you thought.