This is a young adult story with a Victorian, steampunk, industrial, gothic romance flavor to it. It's Sharon Cameron's debut novel and she was awarded the 2009 Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award and the 2013 Crystal Kite Member's Choice Award by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for “The Dark Unwinding”.
Though only 17-years-old, Katharine Tulman keeps the family accounts and does whatever unpleasant tasks her aunt Alice bids her to do. She's treated more like hired help than the niece Alice took in to raise at a young age after the death of the girl’s father. Alice only has care for her own station and that of her son, Katharine's cousin, whom the girl aptly calls Fat Robert in her thoughts. Alice sends Katharine to her eccentric uncle's estate to investigate a rumor that he's squandering away her cousin's inheritance and, if so, to have Uncle Tully committed to an asylum to keep from losing any more of the family fortune.
When she arrives, she encounters what seems like a haunted house full of hostility from the few people she finds inside: Mrs. Jeffries, the cook, who vows she won't make it easy for her to take it all away; a mute child named Davie and his pet rabbit Bertrum; as well as the darkly handsome Lane, her uncle's assistant and caretaker, who looks at her with brooding scowls of displeasure. They all know why she's come and they are none too happy to see her.
When Katharine meets her uncle Tully, she realizes that yes - he shows signs of mental affliction, but he's also a genius, full of childlike imagination that is astonishing. He takes to her right away and insists on calling her Simon's baby, after her father's name, and is excited to share playtime and show her his workshop full of his wondrous clockwork toys; they are full-sized creations, the likes of which she has never seen before. However, when Katharine makes the mistake of picking up plans for one of the toys, while asking her uncle a question, she sees firsthand how mentally unstable he can be, as he starts screaming and throwing things while charging at her.
As the story starts to unfold, Katharine discovers that her uncle employs a village of nine hundred people, all rescued from the workhouses of London. While she feels for them, knowing they'd be sent away if her uncle is declared insane, she is also determined that her cousin will get his inheritance, not out of care for him but for worry of her own survival, since she is dependent on her aunt and cousin's indulgence on having a place to live. Her uncle's lawyer, Mr. Babcock, asks her to lie to her aunt and the authorities and say that her uncle is sane, explaining that within a few years the estate will not only replenish what funds it has gone through, but will also be making a profit. Katharine knows that no matter what her Aunt Alice will find out the truth, but she finally agrees to Lane's suggestion to spend a month on the estate without deciding anything. She knows the end result will go against her uncle, but has come to care for him and some of the people in the village, so she takes the time to pretend the outside world doesn't exist and enjoy spending time with both Uncle Tully and Lane, who has moments of niceness.
Katharine also comes to know Mary Brown, whom she chooses to be her maid as Mary's constant chatter sometimes helps to keep her grounded in this strange household, and Ben Aldridge, who is extremely fascinated with Mr. Tully's automaton creations. Ben is attractive and attentive and may be trying to court her. Katharine is flattered but can't seem to get past the angry smoldering in Lane's eyes when he sees her and Ben together.
The book picks up speed when Katharine starts to fear that she is having bouts of insanity, but those around her assume that she is drunk. Is there something more sinister behind these episodes? Throw in espionage, murder, explosions and a flood, all which cause the tempo to rise and add to the intrigue of the story. Friends begin morphing into foes and adversaries start to become friends. Katharine's very life depends on choosing the right people to trust.
In the aftermath of all the above, when Katharine begins to believe that her life is back on an even keel, in steps her aunt and a few other interesting twists to finish off the story.
Sharon Cameron did a great job of her descriptions of the Tulman estate, where most of the book is set (and which is based on Welbeck Abbey in England, during the time of the Fifth Duke of Portland - a fascinating study in and of itself). She also does a good job of describing the creepiness in the household. Her main characters are interesting and well-fleshed-out and, though Katharine could sometimes be a bit annoying by not figuring out some things sooner, the author did a good job on conveying her feelings and fear of insanity.
I will admit that I figured out the villain early on and found this an easy plot to deduce, including all the twists, but, keeping in mind that this is a young adult read, I enjoyed following along to see how the author was going to handle the progression of the story. I will happily pass this book off to my 12-year-old granddaughter with a smile and bet she will get as much enjoyment out of reading it as I did. I'm looking forward to reading the follow up book, “A Spark Unseen,” as soon as I can get my hands on it. ~~ Dee Astell