Young Helga Sharp likes to tinker with technology. Unfortunately, such tinkering is frowned on in her world—a place that, until a few decades ago, was in danger from a wide variety of mad scientists. When one of her secret projects makes radio contact with a stranger, the lonely Helga finds a kindred spirit. A kindred spirit who is currently being held in an island prison. Specifically, Utley Island, where the mad scientists are kept.
Helga decides to rescue her friend, but after a maritime mishap, finds herself waking up in an Utley Island hospital and facing a lot of questions. She plays dumb, claiming that she got separated from her parents at sea and pretending to know nothing about the island. If she can just stick around long enough to steal a few high-tech parts, she can make a device that will free her friend. But the longer she stays on Utley Island, the more she discovers that nothing about it—from the officers who run the place to the scientists it imprisons—is what she expected.
Helga is clever, sneaky, and skeptical, but well-intentioned, and makes friends on Utley Island despite herself. The residents there seem surprisingly good-hearted and friendly, given that most of them are technically prisoners and the rest are technically prison guards. While Helga’s focus is on building the device to rescue her trapped friend, there is a parallel emotional journey in which she begins to trust others and to find that there are people who actually appreciate her interest in science.
The setting has a fun, fantastical feel, with quirky characters and weird science inventions aplenty. It is unclear what the bar is in this world for being a “mad scientist”—we certainly don’t see any who seem power-hungry or cruel. At worst, they are careless about the potentially dangerous side effects of their cutting-edge experiments. Interestingly, the island’s Chief of Security seems to be a full-on superhero, patrolling in a flight suit, despite the fact that that there are no real supervillains in sight and most of the island’s inhabitants seem perfectly happy to stay there.
The art is vibrantly painted, and the character designs have retro charm, from the oversized bow in Helga’s hair to the oddball appearances of the mad scientists’ outfits and inventions. The colors are saturated, with vivid shades of pink, teal, and blue often dominating the panels, adding to the sci-fi feel of the setting. There is some racial diversity among the island’s inhabitants, though most of the main characters appear to be white.
There is a small amount of danger, as when some robot guardians run amok on the island, but it never gets too intense. Most of the action is of a more puzzle-solving nature as Helga tries to assemble her rescue device while dodging questions from well-meaning adults. (Basically all of the adult characters seem supportive of Helga in general, if not supportive of her secret mission – which, after all, they don’t know about.) This is a fun and gentle sci-fi adventure with a fun retro aesthetic. A nice addition to middle-grade collections.
The Prisoner of Shiverstone
By Linette Moore
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)