The Inventor's Secret

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
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Nasty Brits rule 1816 New York in clever steampunk twist.

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

Educational Value

This is an example of steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction that develops an alternative history and incorporates wild mechanical inventions, usually steam-powered with the look and feel of the Victorian era and fabulous sci-fi enhancements. But unlike most steampunk, this is set just decades after the British colonies started the Revolutionary War. This supposes the Founding Fathers were hanged after the colonies lost the war, and that slavery was abolished in favor of indentured servitude of 20 years for revolutionaries. There are many twists to history and technology for readers to explore. There's also some worship of the gods Athena and Hephaestus, with talk of the gods' attributes and what a temple looks like. Plus mention of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

Positive Messages

Revolutionaries who lost the war continue to struggle for freedom, and make many sacrifices for the cause. The book also casts a sharp eye on class and gender inequality, both typical of the time and made worse by the way the British treat the threat of another revolution.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Charlotte is the rare girl who can dispatch enemies while rocking a ball gown. Even when she knows others will disagree with her, she still does what's right. Ashley is the protective older brother and a good leader.


Not constant violence by any means, but some gory details: Coe shoots a man "leaving little of the marauder's head sitting upon his neck." In the same scene Charlotte stabs another man who was "trying to hold the tangle of intestines that peek out from between his splayed fingers." Bloodthirsty giant rats attack and are shot at. One "exploded in a fountain of blood and gore." In some mob violence, an enforcer crushes a 10-year-old's windpipe and another woman's face is smashed in. There's a bit more shooting -- everyone seems to carry a revolver -- and a big explosion with possible causalities. Mentions of Jack getting beaten bloody with a strap by his father, of the Founding Fathers getting hung by the Empire, and the Empire feeding prisoners to rats. Talk that none of the indentured servants living past their 20 years of hard labor. 


A steamy kiss with some groping stops there. Some flirtatious undressing from the waist up, and a torn dress reveals the same. Charlotte stumbles into a brothel where minor character Linnet says she only works there "when she gets bored." Plus some innuendo and banter.


One "shite" spelled like that. And a handful of words like "damn," "bollocks," "bloody hell," "ass," and "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Charlotte's 16 and drinks champagne at a party, wine at dinner, and is offered and drinks some brandy when she's stressed. Some older teens and adults drink the same. Jack's mother drinks sherry laced with laudanum all day. Talk of a brothel tent smelling like tobacco.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer (the Nightshade series) is the start of a new sci-fi series in the popular steampunk subgenre. Steampunk, for parents who don't know already, re-imagines history -- usually in the Victorian era, but here it's 1816, and the British won the Revolutionary War. The teen main characters are the children of revolutionaries in hiding and trying to help the cause themselves. They all know how to shoot a gun and wield knives and swords. A few people die that way, with a little gore described. The main character, Charlotte, stabs a man who's "trying to hold the tangle of intestines that peek out from between his splayed fingers." Eww. Some teen characters drink -- Charlotte has champagne at a party and wine at dinner, then a nip of brandy. She also does a bit of passionate kissing that doesn't go beyond roving hands. One minor character works in a brothel "when she gets bored." Language is rarely saucy, with only a handful of "bloody hells" and "damns" and one "shite" spelled like that. Charlotte's a strong female character at a time in history when it's not easy to appear that way. Luckily for her she can dispatch her enemies while rocking a fancy ball gown.

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What's the story?

It's 1816. Sixteen-year-old Charlotte, her older brother Ashley, his best friend Jack, and dozens of other kids live hidden in catacombs not far from New York City. When they're 18 they'll join their parents fighting in secret -- their cause moving underground after the American colonists lost the Revolutionary War. Charlotte's the kind of girl who likes the adventure and can handle herself in a fight, even against flesh-eating giant rats. But can she handle herself in a dress, out in New York high society? She's determined to find out when Jack reveals his secret connections to rebels in the city and Ashley wants to meet them. With some coaxing, they agree to take Charlotte to New York, too, hidden in plain sight as an upper-class girl looking for suitors. They also bring along the newest arrival to the catacombs, a strange boy Charlotte found in the woods with no memory of where he came from and the strength of an ox.

Is it any good?

Fans of steampunk know already: It's a big sci-fi party of wild inventions and giant dirigibles. Yes, there's a dirigible. With fancy rooms and strange suction-style elevators. Cool. THE INVENTOR'S SECRET also makes New York City one big crazy invention with floating platforms, one for each caste. Readers will long for a map of the city, but alas. Maybe the sequel will have one. While they're at it, how about some drawings of the inventions and the Pisces submersible?

Oh yeah, there's the story, too. It's easy to get sidetracked, and The Inventor's Secret does, when Charlotte reaches the city and figures out she has strong feelings for Jack. The long romantic aside is worth it, but what happened to the rebellion? Readers don't get to see anything beyond Ashley and Jack rushing off in secret. A hint of what they're planning would be nice, but the cliffhanger at the end will do the trick of drawing readers to the next in the series.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about steampunk. Have you read any before? What do you like about it? Can you imagine all the inventions the author describes? What were your favorites?

  • What do you think about this re-imagining of history? Had the colonists lost, do you think the Founding Fathers would have met their end that way? What do you think about the other changes the author supposes? Would the British have abolished slavery?

  • Are you drawn to this series now? Will you read the next book? What do you think will happen to Grave? Charlotte? Jack?

Book details

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