In this prequel to The Boneshaker, a young card shark named Sam teams up with a girl named Jin who’s a Chinese fireworks maker to defeat an evil takeover of New York City. The chief villain here is Jack, who is the secondary villain in The Boneshaker. However, we see relatively little of Jack himself in The Broken Lands. Rather, two awful beings named High Walker and Bloody Bones (or just Walker and Bones) have been sent on ahead to prepare the way for Jack to take over nineteenth-century New York City.
Milford spends quite a bit of time showing us what these villains are up to, which provides a chilling counterpoint to what Sam and Jin are doing as they race to save the city. The two young people are aided by a few men who hang out at a saloon called the Reverend Dram, among them another character from The Boneshaker, a grizzled black musician named Tom Guyot. Apparently New York City has ten secret protectors, and the bad guys are trying to wipe them out. Unfortunately, Walker and Bones are rather successful, which ups the peril. And it's no ordinary peril; what we get is devilish magic being turned on New Yorkers. For example, Walker starts killing people in a truly terrible fashion just to draw out the city’s guardians. And here is the scene in which Bones makes his appearance:
A wind kicked up along the beach, sending hats and skirts and blankets whirling. The black-eyed man shoved his flying hair out of his face and stepped back. Where the pile of bones had been, a swirling mass of sand was collecting into shape.
The shape spun like a little tornado, pulling sand and pebbles and stray bits of seaweed inward, collecting broken shells, snips of paper, and twigs of driftwood, creating a denser and denser cloud that hovered at about the level of the black-eyed man’s knees. It began to throb, to shift and pulse and mold itself. Little by little, it began to take shape.
The wind flowing up and down the beach began to diminish. The dark shape, still indistinct and fuzzy at the edges, unbent itself. A tall man stood up.
But let’s consider our two heroes. When the book begins, something unusual is happening to Sam: he is being beaten at his own game. His card sharking and the man who beat him will come into play later in the book. Next we meet Jin, first seen through Sam’s eyes. (And yes, there’s a little romance blossoming.) She travels with her grandfather and another man, making fireworks and putting on shows with them. She sneaks a recipe from a strange, ancient book of fireworks that her grandfather owns, then makes fireworks that are more than a little magical. Sam and Jin are both appealing characters—and they are not the same old, same old, either.
Nineteenth-century Coney Island and other parts of New York, with an emphasis on the nearly completed Brooklyn Bridge, make a marvelous setting for an ominous otherworldly threat. The grand hotel Milford includes is especially effective.
The Broken Lands is fairly dark and serious, but it is an entertaining read. Fans of The Boneshaker will appreciate it, and those who are new to Kate Milford’s work should read both books. Milford uses the new book to add to the oddly supernatural version of historic America that she is creating. For example, we find out more about the crossroads and travelers of a certain magical persuasion. The author's work might be closer to magical realism than to traditional fantasy; it definitely includes an element of horror. If you like your historical fantasy with a touch of brimstone, take a look at The Boneshaker and The Broken Lands.
Note for Worried Parents: This is a book for teens. It has some gruesome violence, black magic, and oblique references to child prostitution. None of this is gratuitous, however, though the book does build in creepiness. I would recommend The Broken Lands for readers ages 12 and up.