Book Reviews

Review: The Ship of Doom by MA Bennett

The first book in a new middle grade time travel series, The Ship of Doom has a fun story, but also has some problems with its attempts to be inclusive…

Book: The Ship of Doom by MA Bennett

Publication date: 3rd March 2022

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Welbeck Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: mild violence and injury; death of a parent; death of side characters; transphobia including deadnaming and misgendering.

Greenwich, London, 15th February 1894.

Luna thinks that an evening at her aunt’s butterfly club sounds deathly boring.

But it turns out that the meeting, held in the Butterfly Room at the Greenwich Observatory, is not at all as Luna expects. The Butterfly Club is a society with an unusual secret . . . they use time travel to plunder the future for wonders.

Together with her friends, Konstantin and Aidan, and a clockwork cuckoo, Luna boards the Time Train. The gang travel to 1912 and find themselves aboard a great ship travelling from Southampton to New York. They locate a man called Guglielmo Marconi and his new invention: the wireless radio. But as the ship heads into icy waters, they discover its name:

The RMS TITANIC

Can Luna and the boys save Marconi and his invention from the doomed ship?

Can they get the radio back home to the Butterfly Club?

And how will their actions change the rest of time?

A fairly brief review for this one, as there’s not much beyond what’s in the blurb that I can tell you that wouldn’t be a spoiler! This is mostly a straight-forward historical mystery (both in the Victorian ‘home’ setting and Edwardian ‘future’), but there’s also a little bit of steampunk creeping in, with talk of clockwork hearts and birds, and of course, the time travel. It’s not very magical apart from the time travel, so fans of middle grade mysteries like The Secret Detectives should be in their element. It’s not my usual type of read – and in fact I usually steer clear of Titanic-based fiction in general – but I enjoyed the story very much; there’s a good mix of action and investigation, and the way it wove in real aspects of history was clever. This is definitely the kind of book where you’ll want to just keep reading just one more chapter.

However, I did have one major issue with this book that has rather coloured my impression of the whole, and that’s the transphobia it contains. One of the main characters is a trans boy; while this is handled in period-appropriate language, rather than with modern labels, it’s very clearly depicted. Unfortunately, I didn’t think this was handled as elegantly or sensitively as it could have been. His identity is at first treated by the story as a puzzle for the cis girl main character to work out, and he is forced to reveal his transition to her once she does work it out; his deadname is revealed to her by another character. These are textbook examples of how not to treat trans characters. Frustratingly, the book is very obviously intended as a trans-positive read, as once his identity is “revealed”, the other main characters accept him totally for who he is and no more questions are asked; he explains who he truly is to them and the reader and that’s treated as fact.

There is also some more overt transphobia, mostly denial and insinuations of madness aimed at him by the bad guys, so combined with the previously mentioned issues, I think this is one you probably want to go into carefully or pre-read before passing on. I love seeing trans characters in middle grade, and I do think this particular boy is a nice example in isolation, as he’s well-rounded, unapologetically himself, and crucial to the story without being interesting solely for his identity – it’s just worth being aware that the narration has those negative aspects as well. I wish this had been a little more sensitively written, as it’s clearly intended to be inclusive and supportive, but it shoots itself in the foot. I’d be very interested to know if the book had any sensitivity readers.

I’m really not sure how to rate this one, so I’m not actually going to give it cats out of five. The story side of it I have no issues with: it’s a fast and fun mystery with some really clever plotting and readable, interesting writing. I applaud the attempt to include a trans character, but I have to admit I would hesitate to recommend the book overall because of the issues I’ve mentioned. Equally, I don’t want to write it off, because it is making an effort to be inclusive, just clumsily. I think it could perhaps still be read in a positive way, if you made the effort to unpick and discuss the places where it is problematic, but then you could just pick something that is whole-heartedly positive about its trans characters, like the Strangeworlds series by LD Lapinski. There aren’t many reviews up for this on Goodreads yet, but I will be watching out to see how it’s received by own voices reviewers, and that’s what I recommend you do too.

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