The good news (again) is that I had the perfect book to read during all of this work madness: The Boundless by Oppel. It's a middle grade adventure story starring Will, whose father works for the Canadian Pacific Railway, first as a mining laborer and later as one of the few men capable of engineering The Boundless, the pride of the CPR.
The Boundless is a marvel of a train, comprising 987 cars that stretch for seven miles, with four classes of service and every amenity that the age can provide, built by the greatest visionaries to ever dream of conquering a continent. It is the Titanic of the tundra and fraught with commensurate perils brought on by overweening pride.
Add in a circus, a hint of magic, a talented and lovely young disappearing artist, a man who may be able to manipulate time, a murder, mysterious creatures, and a revenge scheme that has percolated for years, and you've got a pretty good adventure in the making. The Boundless harbors a carefully guarded secret, and once Will becomes separated from his father on the train's maiden journey, he must be careful whom he trusts. Only a level head, a driving desire to save his father, and the courage to keep his promise can save him, aided along the way by a handful of circus performers who take delight in flouting both authority and convention.
This book is without a doubt the most fun I've had with a middle grade book since reading John Stephens' The Emerald Atlas. I love tales that feature adventure touched by fantasy, where loyalty and stoutness of heart are eventually rewarded after the hero struggles to figure out what's right, and then still struggles to do it even after he's figured it out. If Huckleberry Finn had encountered The Night Circus floating down the Mississippi instead of crossing the continent on rails, the adventure would have been quite similar to Will's on The Boundless. I can't think of a better way to praise a novel for young readers.
I'd also like to put in a plug for the jacket designer and the person who illustrated each new chapter heading. Both go unnamed in the advance reading copy that I read, and that's a shame because they both exhibit details that add to the story. Take a closer look at the cover, where a golden spike and a key set off the title. A casual glance would only see symmetrical golden illustration, but the spike and the key are both important elements of the book. Likewise with the chapter headings:
Each one provides a clue to a key element in the upcoming chapter. Usually I'm the kind of reader who doesn't pay attention to these things, as I want to race on to the next chapter and the next, but these, like the chapter headings and Mary Grandpre's illustrations in the Harry Potter books, are worth slowing down for. I'd go so far as to say that they're worth reading the physical book instead of an e-book.
There are minor surprises along the way, and though most adult readers will anticipate the majority of Oppel's plot twists, that doesn't diminish the reading experience in the least. Or at least it didn't for me. This book is about Will; more specifically, it's about his deciding what kind of person he is going to be, coming to terms with his father's fallibility, and learning about the importance of showing kindness before judgment.
NB: I randomly selected an advance reading copy of this book from the many shelves of ARCs in my bookstore. It will be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2014.