The Dark Unwinding

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Dark Unwinding Book Poster Image
Thrilling steampunk mystery, romance in Victorian England.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Young readers will learn a lot about the social realities of the Victorian era, including class divisions, the limited prospects of women, and the dire consequences of unemployment. There's also a bit of history, as the Battle of Waterloo (in the past) and Bonaparte supporters figure in the plot.

Positive Messages

Katharine's struggles to do the right thing as much as she can, and her ethical conflicts, will resonate with readers. There are many positive messages, including an appreciation for people who are "different," a concern for people in poverty, a strong community connection, and an interest in technical innovation.

Positive Role Models & Representations

While a number of characters keep the reader guessing as to their true intentions throughout, there are plenty of inspiring figures, starting with the resourceful Katharine, who goes from downtrodden mouse to true heroine. Her self-appointed "lady's maid," Mary, one of the villagers, is appealing, loyal and bright; the eccentric Uncle Tully is kindhearted and innocent; the long-deceased Marianna, Katharine's grandmother, proves to have been wise and foresighted in providing for her family.


A character is drugged by the villain, who captures her and urges her to commit suicide.  An explosion causes the deaths of several characters, while others die by mysterious violence; a positive character shoots at a villainous one to keep him from doing harm; a pet rabbit is poisoned and shot.


The villain mockingly kisses his female captive. Katharine's love interest kisses her hand and forehead, but nothing more.


One use of "arse."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One character is made to question her own sanity after another character secretly doses her with opium, causing much strange behavior.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Dark Unwinding, a satisfying debut from author Sharon Cameron, combines hints of gothic romance, complete with mystery and danger, with moral dilemmas, political intrigue, and ingenious Victorian gizmos. One of the leading characters is drugged with opium without her knowledge; she's also kissed mockingly by the villain as he leaves her to her fate. An explosion causes the deaths of several characters, while others die by mysterious violence. And a pet rabbit is shot dead.

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What's the story?

In Victorian England, 17-year-old orphan Katharine Tulman has no money or expectations of her own and is at the mercy of Aunt Alice, mother of Katharine's self-indulgent cousin Robert, heir to the family fortune. Wishing to hasten her son's possession of the estate, Aunt Alice sends Katharine to visit her uncle, its current occupant, and have him declared insane. Katharine arrives to find her uncle eccentric but brilliant, a designer of ingenious machines with remarkable capabilities -- and the employer of hundreds of people plucked from the workhouses and given a decent life. Torn between doing her aunt's bidding, which she sees as her only hope for not ending up on the street herself, and her growing fondness for her uncle and the villagers, she also has to contend with mysterious events, people who aren't what they seem, and her attraction to a young man who assists her uncle.

Is it any good?

This book received the Sue Alexander Award for Most Promising New Work from the Society of Children's Book Authors and Illustrators, and the published version lives up to expectations. Plot twists, great characters and conflicts, a strong narrative voice, and a fully realized world of gaslights, steam engines, and 19th century technology bring to life a complex narrative that will delight young girls just getting acquainted with Victorian tales of mystery, manners and romance. Parents who love the genre will also find this a fine read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the differences between Victorian times and our own. What were the options for teenage girls in that society? What happened if you were poor or lost your job?

  • How do Katharine's changes in wardrobe reflect, and affect, her development as a character?

  • What other books have you read that feature 19th century technology and science fiction?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love science fiction and historical fiction

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