Review: Wildspark by Vashti Hardy
Prue Haywood hasn’t felt the same since the death of her brother, Francis.
When a Craftsman from the Imperial Personifate Guild Of Medlock inquires about a talented mechanic called Francis, Prue sees her chance. She scribbles a note for her parents, leaves home early one morning and disguises herself as a mechanic called Frances. Getting into the Guild might be her only chance to reunite herself with her late brother.
The Guild leads Personifate research and creation. A Personifate is an animal-like machine which houses a human spirit. The spirit of someone who has died. This has been made possible through scientific discoveries about a very special material.
If Prue wants to find her brother, she will have to help the Personifates to remember their first lives. Doing so goes against the wishes of the Guild leaders.
First Vashti Hardy wrote Brightstorm, which took us to the skies in adventure. With Wildspark, Vashti Hardy confirms herself as an exceptional storyteller. The premise, that spirits can be brought back to being as mechanical animals, opens a world of political discord, entitlement and questions about what makes someone alive.
The Guild first harnessed the technology has a monopoly on Personifate creation. Like many professions in Medlock (a city which plays the same role London plays in the UK) it is open mainly to the old families, although some people like Craftsman Primrose make it their mission to find talent regardless of birth. One of Prue’s fellow apprentices, a girl called Cora, lives and breathes this entitlement but another apprentice, Agapantha, is much friendlier. The final apprentice, Edwin, is the first Personifate in the role. At every twist and turn, his right to be there is challenged. Prue suffers the same treatment, although negativity towards her is displayed in a much subtler way.
This was a brilliant way of showing how constantly hearing that you shouldn’t be somewhere shapes young people’s aspirations and self-belief.
Other major themes include the definition of life and our sense of personal identity. Debates rage in Medlock about whether Personifates should exist, and what sort of rights they should have? At what point is something a machine and when does it become alive? To what extent do our bodies shape our identity? The story raises fascinating questions without ever losing its momentum or sense of wonder.
Prue is a fantastic STEM role model, and the way characters of different genders were written felt considered and non-stereotypical. Subtle things make a huge difference. For example, many male role models (and particularly in steampunk) have names relating to machinery or power. This gives a false impression that men in STEM are tough and overtly-masculine. By naming a man ‘Primrose’, Hardy shows that boy can be an engineer.
The worldbuilding is both detailed and nuanced. This has the same feel as worlds by Pullman and Rowling, where everything is known from the material used to make apprentice uniforms to the range of sweets on offer at the local shop. Great thought has been given to how the world functions too. Medlock, like London, enjoys great investment over the rest of the country.
This is one of those books which deserves to be read widely and for a long time. Vashti Hardy is a storyteller to watch and a writer of wonderful stories.
Thanks to Scholastic UK for my proof copy of Wildspark. Opinions my own.