Book Review: Faelan and the Miracle Machines

AnnMarie Patterson |

Abigail Palmer's debut work of YA historical fiction probes slavery and identity in the early Roman Empire.


It’s been a while since I read a piece of middle-grade fiction, and I’d forgotten what ambitious literature it can be. Home to some of our most beloved childhood reads (boy wizards, modern demigods, and wimpy kids), it also contains the books that positively ruined us (Bridge to Terabithia, anyone?). Because we read them at such an impressionable age, these stories stick with us. But middle-grade fiction has developed something of an undeserved reputation among older readers: because it is accessible to children, these types of books must be simplistic or boring. In fact, really successful middle-grade fiction operates on multiple levels. When it does so, it is just as engaging for adult audiences. This requires some skilful maneuvering that, depending on the genre and setting of the novel, can be almost impossible. The recent piece of historical middle-grade fiction, Faelan and the Miracle Machines, by Abigail Palmer, attempts to navigate this tricky maneuver.

Palmer’s novel features two narrative levels: first, a story about familial loss, displacement, and the devastation of slavery in the 1st century Roman empire and second, an identity-building, ‘find yourself’, coming of age narrative intended to be accessible for children and teens developing their own sense of self. Theoretically these two narrative strands fit well together, but it can be difficult to craft.

Faelan, a 12 year-old Briton living in a Roman occupied homeland at the time of Buddica’s rebellion, finds himself yanked from home and bounced around the empire as he tries to build a new life after loss. This is a bleak world for such a young protagonist, but Palmer does not soften it. She is committed to realism in her representation of the empire’s social structures. In just the first ten pages, Faelan’s family is separated, he is sold into slavery, and his identity as a Briton is nearly eradicated. From there, Faelan endures the vicissitudes of Roman slavery in a patrician household, his experience only varying between bad and worse. Readers follow him through injury, starvation, escape attempts, and, mercifully, some kindness from fellow enslaved characters. It is not until the second half of the story that things start to look up for Faelan. When he meets Heron, a machinist living in Alexandria, Faelan is taught philosophy, various theologies, and mechanics with scholars from Alexandria’s library. But his status as an escaped slave in Roman Egypt proves nearly impossible to overcome even in this new life.

The baseline coming of age progression is familiar. Like many pieces of engaging YA and middle grade fiction, questions of restoring identity, or finding out who a character is and who they have the potential to be, provide this book's momentum. Such a story told from the perspective of an enslaved preteen–someone whose identity would have been very delicate to begin with–keeps these questions high stakes and engaging. However, by beginning a coming of age narrative in Roman Britain, Palmer runs into problems.

This isn’t the fault of her protagonist, but rather the history itself. Faelan was clearly well researched. Echoes of familiar historiography, like Tacitus' Agricola, can be felt throughout the opening scenes, but such historiography is written by Romans, and Palmer’s narrative is told from the point of view of the defeated party. Because of this, historical fiction bumps up against the problem of eradicated culture and lost history. Roman victors wrote this ancient history, but they left plenty of gaps. Because of this, historical fiction from the point of view of the losers risks world-building that feels patchy. Since we only know what Faelan’s world looked like from the point of view of the Romans, we don’t learn all that much about Faelan’s world from his point of view. As a result, we don’t get a great sense of our main character’s identity before all these external challenges to his identity begin. It’s hard to feel the loss of self in slavery when Faelan didn’t have a clear self for readers to latch onto in the first place.

The use of religion in the beginning of the book provides a good example of this. In the opening scene, Faelan and his father discuss Buddica’s rage in terms of Roman religion. She is like the Furies, they say. The pair then laugh off the possibility of such underworld beasts that they don’t believe in…. But what do they believe in instead? What was their religion? Why wasn’t Buddica’s rage characterized in terms of the Druid tradition? Well, we don’t know that tradition outside of what the Romans preserved. Neither reader nor author know what Faelan would have known. Roman culture, a culture that is importantly not Faelan’s, is all that’s left for us to read from. What results is a strange ‘negative space’ characterization: instead of developing a sense of who Faelan is, we only get to know who he isn’t.

The twofold result is frustrating but also a tad metaliterary. First, it is frustrating to follow a protagonist who’s a bit of a blank page. Second, it is precisely because Rome demolished so much of ancient Britons’ culture that Faelan is a blank page. What Rome took from Faelan, Rome also took from Faelan’s readers. This is a piece of fiction that understands the tragedy of lost history, that it wasn’t just an ancient turn of events that created lack of clarity in a modern novel. Faelan knows that Rome’s involvement in his homeland is what left him so hollow. He appears this way on the page to us, but he also appears this way to himself.

I was delighted to see, however, that as the book progressed, ‘who is Faelan?’ became a much more answerable question. It’s more of a slow burn than a fast paced adventure, but Faelan’s journey through slavery provides an opportunity for the protagonist to develop a new means of self identification. From Britain to Ostia to a Mediterranean voyage, Faelan learns quite a bit about life in the empire outside of Britain. All the while, a series of subtle and not-so-subtle analogies between Faelan and the stories and cultures he encounters become a source of personal identity creation. Each night, Faelan tries to remember who he was in Britain, but it makes more sense to the reader when Faelan starts to define his identity via these new encounters–imagining himself as a beleaguered Odysseus or as caged arena animals breaking free. In these analogies, Palmer shapes a thoughtful and empathetic portrayal of how enslaved characters find a sense of self, despite constant attempts by enslavers to erase it. One of the older slaves is described as having derived a “melancholy dignity” from his philosophical study. Faelan finds this for himself as well. These are the little cracks in the system of slavery through which identity seeps.

Once Faelan escapes his enslaver, a little beyond the novel’s mid-point, the story becomes far more engaging and finally makes good on the “miracle” promised in the title. Faelan lands an apprenticeship with a machinist, and the setting switch to Alexandria allows for narrative acceleration. The murky, vague image of Faelan’s life in Britain is gone and the sharp, vibrant setting of multicultural Roman Egypt takes its place. The last third of the book introduces various lifestyles, philosophies, and religious identities that cohabitate in the metropolis of Alexandria. They’re worked into a more complex plotline about friendship, human dignity, and personal growth that becomes steadily more thrilling until the end. In Egypt, Faelan not only comes to know himself but witnesses people from all walks of life navigating his same concerns. He eventually comes to an understanding of self that is defined from within, not via juxtaposition with the outside world. The words of his philosophically inclined mentor take root: “No matter what happens out there, justice can reign in your soul.”

Overall, the book is a slow start, but once it picks up it’s worth the read. For educators in particular, Faelan might be a good recommendation for students of Latin and Classics who are less inclined toward myth-based novels. Faelan doesn’t have the adventurous edge of something like Rick Riordan’s popular mythology series, but this novel teaches a fair amount of Roman history in a rather short span and includes some excellent slice-of-life images from around the empire. As an experience it feels a bit less like reading an epic, and a bit more like learning through archeology–slower but with more concrete finds. So often we use myth to get students interested in Latin and Greek literature, but this book can appeal to a different type of learner.

Faelan is Abigail Palmer’s debut novel, and in it I could see the transition in her experience as a storyteller. It feels as though it took the writer some time to settle into her story, but once she does, the results are good. Encouraged by what I saw in the second half of the book, I hope Palmer will keep writing stories set in the early empire. The book was well-researched and could be a great learning tool. I would be eager to see what else she comes up with if she continues to write in this underpopulated vein for middle grade readers.

Faelan and the Miracle Machines is available digitally and in print from Ignatius Press and Magnificat Press.


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AnnMarie Patterson

AnnMarie Patterson is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California focusing on epic poetry and Roman art. She loves active Latin, Roman architecture, and Italian food.


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