Factotum is a novel by DM Cornish, an Australian writer I greatly admire. It’s number three in a set called “The Foundling’s Tale” (or alternately “The Monster Blood Tattoo”) the first two being Foundling and Lamplighter. Years ago I picked up the paperback of Foundling because I was attracted to the cover, which featured characters drawn by the author, and which appeared quite steampunk. (This was back in about 2009, I think, when my interest in steampunk was a fledgling thing yearning for exploration.) Fortunately for me, some of my favorite novels are young adult literature, so I wasn’t put off by the label–and neither should you be!
I was immediately caught up in the visionary world of Cornish’s Half Continent, where the sea is vinegar, monsters and man fight a daily war, and the making of potions is both chemistry and magic. The story centers around Rossamünd, a boy with a girl’s name, an orphan trying to make his way in the world. Though a thousand YA books begin with this rather cliché premise, Cornish takes the premise and turns it on its head. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this.
The thing that most impresses me about Cornish’s writing, the thing that keeps bringing me back to eagerly devour another tome (and tomes they are!), is the language. Cornish loves words, and it’s obvious; he digs up ancient little-used words and creates new ones to produce a world that is described, by turns, as either antique or wholly new, something both familiar and entirely avant-garde. Eventually reading these novels immerses you in the world, so that it seems strange, upon emerging back into reality, that your friends don’t use the word “cruorpunxis” to refer to their tattoo, or that you don’t know any lightning-calling “lahzars” or see monster-fighting “teratologists” on the news each evening.
My only criticism of the novels is that they are sometimes a little too erudite and descriptive. A page-long description of a minor character (who will quickly be forgotten in the next chapter) is accompanied by a sketch. Cornish’s sketches are beautifully rendered, but I wanted more of them depicting the main characters and the nickers and bogles (two types of monsters) that inhabit the world, with fewer of the unimportant side characters who aren’t maintained throughout. I also didn’t think it was necessary to describe every detail–right down to the placement of every mole and spoor–of the minor characters, especially if we’re also being provided a sketch. This type of description, however, definitely reminds the reader of a novel written a hundred years ago, when such was the norm, and this may have been the point. Mood is certainly an overlooked factor in much modern writing, and Cornish achieves the desired effect handily.
Though I’m not sure it’s quite as good as the previous two novels in the series, Factotum remains a lush, beautifully written masterpiece. Don’t let the YA Lit label fool you; this series is dark and compelling, full of violence and intrigue, rife with believable characters and heartbreaking choices. Highly recommended, and a favorite series of mine. Though the Foundling’s Tale was billed as a trilogy, I’m yet hoping for a fourth installment. Fingers crossed!