Seacombe Island is the first novel by Karen Garvin. The story follows the protagonist Tom Ashton in his misadventures on the mysterious eponymous island.
We meet Tom as a struggling baker who is neglecting his fiancée, Ellie. He loses both in a fire from which he only barely manages to escape himself. As people suspect him of having caused the fire, Tom turns to his friend, Sam Grey, for help, who puts him up with uncle Edward.
This uncle seems to be in shady business and it doesn’t take long for Tom to get involved. As he becomes a suspect in Ellie’s death, Edward and Sam persuade him to work for them on Seacombe Island.
Up to this point, Tom seems rather a spineless character, pushed by events and other people. But he remains likable, which is to Garvin’s credit. She manages to make a dull character interesting to keep the story going.
When Tom arrives on Seacombe Island, he discovers that everybody works there in a massive underground complex. His job is to wrap packages. A colleague, Jeremy Bledsoe, flanks him. Jeremy reveals nothing to Tom. It is not clear what the packing are and who they are for.
This is not the only mystery. Workers are not allowed to travel inside the complex alone. There are many secret areas and no one will give Tom an explanation of what’s going on. It is forbidden to ask question and curious people tend to disappear.
I really liked how the story unfolded at this point: somewhere between a nightmarish Amazon warehouse and The Prisoner TV series, with a hint of Lost.
I’m not going to tell you anymore about the plot, and I’m a little sorry about this because all cool stuff happens in the second half: lies and betrayals, sea monsters, orchids with strange poisonous and combustion properties.
The island of mysteries is a common trope in literature, including in steampunk. We have Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The island is an isolated place, where strange things happen and characters confront their fears and evolve. This also happens to Tom.
Seacombe Island doesn’t have any remarkable site or feature, though. And as the novel is set for the most part underground, the fact that it’s on an island becomes almost irrelevant.
The novel’s steampunk-era setting isn’t really relevant either. The story could be taking place anywhere between 1850 and 1990. I would have preferred some richer descriptions of the environments with epoch-specific “props”.
I still recommend the book. There is a good amount of mysteries and the style is very fluid. It’s perfect for the summer holidays, to read on the beach. There are quite a few memorable elements: The shady uncle Edward Grey seems to have been taken from a Dickens novel. The claustrophobia of the locations is felt through the reading, as is the helplessness of the main character.
I particularly liked the relationship between Tom and Jeremy. Having worked on ships myself, I know what it’s like to share a cabin and work with a stranger. Garvin describes this sort of relationship really well.