Young AJ Flynn has flunked almost all his GCSE exams. In a British meritocracy that values official credentials, that renders him functionally unemployable—before he’s even turned 17. Post-industrial Britain doesn’t value his love of solitude and contemplation, his fondness for Victorian literature and pre-modern history. But a fluke job interview leads AJ to his long-denied inheritance, including a mysterious door into pre-Victorian London. He also finally discovers his name.
On first face, award-winning British YA novelist Sally Gardner’s latest novel pinches elements of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes into a fantasy thriller for older youth and young adults. But themes slowly emerge subtly criticizing Britain’s meritocracy, and “skills drillz”-based education everywhere. Young AJ occupies a Britain where he’s unqualified for adulthood, but childhood diversions are costly when you’re poor in one of Earth’s most expensive cities.
Britain’s exam system pigeonholes students into career paths and avocational opportunities at an absurdly young age. The demand that AJ know his desires and calling at age 16 is anachronistically quaint. Maybe that’s why AJ stumbles accidentally into smoggy, cobblestoned historic London, because it’s important he views an era where he’s already considered a man. AJ flits between eras, seeking a time and place where he feels a sense of belonging.
In that pre-modern time, AJ witnesses a culture where science is rudimentary, technology is unreliable, and “madness” is a cultural disease more feared than cholera. He meets a winsome lass as dissatisfied with her own time as he is with his. But the vagaries of pre-Victorian inheritance law, and a long history of conveniently mysterious deaths, threatens Miss Esme’s sanity and freedom. AJ brings modern skills to defend his anachronistic love.
Seriously. Slim quickly ingratiates himself with lucrative trading partners because he has a skill both rare and valuable: he can boil tea. The social criticism is blatant. Modern London de-values simple skills, giving unaccountable wealth to bankers, barristers, and other brainpower workers. Young adults who simply make stuff belong to another time. One simple fluke, politely unexplained because “why” doesn’t matter, shows them a world where their lives mean something.
Is this therefore an innate criticism of Britain’s education system? And by extension a rote memorization school system, regardless of nation? Gardner tacitly rejects Common Core and STEM movements, just in how the characters relate to their work and skills. Simply knowing how to filter water makes unemployable teens suddenly valuable. In a time when simple mechanical skills matter, being young isn’t a disadvantage.
How old is a 17-year-old boy? Is age based on anything internal, or does it derive from culture? At that age, teens seek their adult roles, and in a time defined by manual trades and other limitations, maybe 17 really is mature and grown. We’re at our peak physical ability. But in an age defined by mental skills, when accumulated knowledge and skills matters more, 17 is too young to know ourselves, much less our place in the world.
But there’s a trade-off. Like many teens, AJ considers himself as a man out of time, but when he encounters the time with which he feels most comfortable, it doesn’t value the mental skills he brings. The constant evolution of labor markets has trended away from manual trades: what Slim knows how to do, and revolutionizes London doing, is done today by machines. Slim can’t survive in a brain economy. Notwithstanding his scores, AJ hypothetically can.
The very exams that circumscribe AJ, and define his combative relationship with his very angry mother, supposedly channel people into brain jobs. But the attitudes reflect a pre-Victorian, mechanically skilled attitude of what it means to be adult. What constitutes “merit” is decided by bureaucrats structurally out of touch with modernity and its needs. Modern and pre-modern circumstances which metaphorically co-exist within the exam system, literally co-exist in AJ himself.
This book was warmly received when first released in Britain nearly two years ago. Advance responses to its American release, however, have been merely lukewarm. Maybe AJ’s culture clash is too inherently British to travel internationally. Maybe this book mainly attracts Anglophiles like me. But I think there’s something universal happening here. I believe, with time, this book will find its audience, and its message will resonate, regardless of nationality.