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The Wells Bequest
Polly Shulman
Nancy Paulsen Books, 272 pages

The Wells Bequest
Polly Shulman
Polly Shulman is an alumna of Hunter College High School, Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics, and Yale University, where she majored in math. She has never dared to crash a dance, but in tenth grade she did write a proof for math class in the form of a sonnet. She grew up in New York City, where she lives with her family.

Polly Shulman Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Michael M Jones

Leo Novikov is a technologically adept kid in a family full of scientific whizzes, which occasionally leads to some rather high expectations. His quest to produce a really interesting project for the Manhattan Polytechnic Academy's science fair leads him to the unique institution known as the New York Circulating Materiel Repository, a library which collects objects rather than books.

Though his true dream is to build a time machine, Leo figures he can't go wrong in researching historical robots. However, when he runs into the Repository's chief page, the quick-witted Jaya Rao, he realizes that maybe the time machine is not so impossible after all. See, it was only a few days ago when a tiny version of himself appeared in his room, riding a time machine, Jaya accompanying him… It looks like history is already catching up.

In short order, Leo is introduced to one of the Repository's Special Collections: The Wells Bequest, an impossible gathering of science fiction gadgets and paraphernalia -- everything from Captain Nemo's Nautilus to H.G. Wells' Time Machine to Rossum's Universal Robot. Amazing stuff, right? Leo couldn't be more excited, especially when he recognizes Wells' machine as the very one he and Jaya were using….

When a disgruntled ex-employee of the Repository threatens to destroy New York with a massive death ray if he is not granted access to the time machine, Leo and Jaya decide to go back in time to prevent the death ray's construction. The inventor they must thus discourage: Nikola Tesla. What follows is a desperate romp through time and space, involving one of history's greatest mad scientists and some gadgets straight out of classic science fiction.

While The Wells Bequest is a follow-up and sequel of sorts to Polly Shulman's earlier The Grimm Legacy, it can be read on its own easily enough. The connections, apart from the premise and some character overlap, are fairly minor. But where The Grimm Legacy plundered fairy tale treasures, this book has a field day with old school science fiction. I doubt it's spoiling anything to note that Shulman's done her work, namechecking works by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Karel Capek, and more. And who doesn't love the patron saint of Internet geekery everywhere, the ever-fascinating Nikola Tesla?

Admittedly, this book is aimed at a middle grade audience, though I don't think we ever get a true estimation of just how old the main characters are, just that they're in their early-to-mid teens at best. The tone of the book is appropriately light, mixing drama and action without getting too graphic or dark. While the stakes are high, the characters escape without too much trauma. Throw in some gleefully awkward mutual attraction between Leo and Jaya, and you have all the elements needed for a good old-fashioned time travel escapade.

Let's face it: In the New York Circulating Material Repository (and its mentioned but unseen French and English counterparts), Shulman has created the sort of place we'd all want to visit. We've now seen fairy tale and science fiction collections, and we get brief glimpses of the Lovecraft Corpus and Gibson Chrestomathy, and if that's not unlimited story fodder, I don't know what is. I'd definitely sell some body parts for lending privileges at the Repository, or even just a guided tour of the Special Collections. Shulman may have used the premise to turn out one YA book and one that borders MG and YA, but she's laid down the building blocks for just about any other genre she cares to explore.

The underlying metaphysics of the premise make for some interesting thinky-thoughts as well. Even the characters are unsure as to whether the objects stem from fiction somehow, or if the authors somehow wrote fiction based around real things. Some objects have rules, others don't -- all dependent upon the source material. A discussion of available time machines reveals that the story affects the object. A time machine from a "can't alter the past" story is going to have a very different effect than one like the Wells machine, which has no such limitations. Very interesting stuff.

The important thing is that this book is fun. It's a little silly, a little goofy, a whole lot of smile-inducing, and yet it draws inspiration from the very roots of the genre in a way both authentic and respectfully playful. It may not change the world, but it's certainly a feel-good story.

Copyright © 2013 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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