Juanita is a mystic, one of the chosen people who can communicate with the spirits of the dead. Her family’s spirits impart wisdom, guidance, and in this case, a mission from God to help save the lives of innocents. Informed of a man plotting to kill off the orphans and other unwanted that are sent to the asylum, Juanita is tasked with finding a way to stop the trains to draw attention to the asylum and its plight. However, part of the mystic’s way of life is to do no harm to others – even living as strict vegetarians unless their own life is at risk – and her ancestor’s plan to sabotage the trains is likely to cause casualties. However, even this simple task goes awry – or even more sinister, according to plan – and causes a greater tragedy than Juanita ever imagined. Can she heal from her injuries, both mental and physical, in order to complete her task? Will she be able to forgive the injustice done and the horrors she will experience or will her determination to help save innocent lives falter in the face of her own plight?

Laurel Anne Hill’s The Engine Woman’s Light is a complicated genre mash, consisting of historical fiction, fantasy, pieces of Christianity and spiritualism, and a touch of steampunk. The book is largely aimed at the older end of the Young Adult audience, up into the New Adult readership as our protagonist is roughly fifteen at the start and eighteen by the end of the book. The majority of the characters are minorities, and it’s refreshing to see a book with a large swath of ethnicities that feels natural and not crammed into the narrative just to check some boxes. The book covers a lot of topics, many of them potentially triggering, including scenes of violence, coercion, and rape. It also does a good job of showing how people can change if given proper motivation, or even the opportunity to do so.

[alert variation=”alert-info”]Publisher: Sand Hill Review Press
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle
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As far as pacing and plot, the book starts of strong, but then stumbles off and on over the course of the novel, repeatedly regaining its stride only to trip up again a bit later. The plot to stop the trains is interesting, but how stopping the trains thwarts the evil man running the asylum is a stretch at best. The spirit world, or Shadow World as it is called here, is a complicated blend of Christian lore mixed with high fantasy, and the rules are constantly being broken, which makes it a little murky in places. The steampunk aspects are an afterthought – mainly appearing in the forms of fancy weapons – as nearly everything else feels like technology or styles that were already around in the 1800s, and so anyone expecting a real steampunk flavored novel may be disappointed. The most unsatisfying thing in the book for this reviewer was Juanita’s lack of agency. Nearly everything she does or thinks she chooses to do is manipulated and controlled by the spirits of her ancestors to ensure she completes her mission. She’s shepherded from one event to another by a male figure at almost every turn. It’s frustrating because we need more books with female protagonists that make their own way, and had Juanita been able to walk on her own without being constantly told or shown what to do it would have been a much more satisfying read.

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