Title: Mercury Boys
Author: Chandra Prasad
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Historical Fiction (kind of)
Publisher: Soho Teen
Review Copy: Received an ARC from the publisher
Availability: Available now
Summary: After her life is upended by divorce and a cross-country move, 16-year-old Saskia Brown feels like an outsider at her new school—not only is she a transplant, she’s biracial in a population of mostly white students. One day while visiting her only friend at her part-time library job, Saskia encounters a vial of liquid mercury, then touches an old daguerreotype—the precursor of the modern-day photograph—and makes a startling discovery. She is somehow able to visit the man in the portrait: Robert Cornelius, a brilliant young inventor from the nineteenth century. The hitch: she can see him only in her dreams.
Saskia shares her revelation with some classmates, hoping to find connection and friendship among strangers. Under her guidance, the other girls steal portraits of young men from a local college’s daguerreotype collection and try the dangerous experiment for themselves. Soon, they each form a bond with their own “Mercury Boy,” from an injured Union soldier to a charming pickpocket in New York City.
At night, the girls visit the boys in their dreams. During the day, they hold clandestine meetings of their new secret society. At first, the Mercury Boys Club is a thrilling diversion from their troubled everyday lives, but it’s not long before jealousy, violence, and secrets threaten everything the girls hold dear.
Review: [This book contains graphic depictions of gore/wounds, amputation, drug and alcohol use (including overdose), near drowning, racism, divorce & infidelity, and cult-like behavior.]
The summary for MERCURY BOYS intrigued me immediately. I love stories with fantastical elements and am fond of history, so the premise of time travel via daguerreotype caught my attention. However, I didn’t quite get what I wanted from this book, and the mismatch between my expectations going in and how the story ultimately turned out left me a little disappointed.
There is a lot going on in MERCURY BOYS. Beyond everything mentioned in the summary, Saskia also has additional side plots involving a hookup she regrets, sorting out her relationship with each of her parents, etc. Building a new life in a new town after your mother cheats on your father and your parents get divorced and you have an ill-advised hookup with a cute boy would be enough for a novel on its own. Add in everything else, including occasionally swapping POVs so you can see what the other girls are doing with their “Mercury Boys,” and 360 pages simply isn’t enough to develop everything meaningfully. In my opinion, the book suffers for it. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but the final revelation in the book is motivated by something I honestly didn’t care about at all. This soured my enjoyment of the book considerably.
Another thing that suffered is the development of the Mercury Boys themselves. Even though the book jumps out of Saskia’s POV to see some of the other time travel trips, there simply isn’t enough time to develop the Mercury Boys to the point where I would see why any of the girls would get so obsessed with them. Granted, some of this was certainly deliberate for spoilery plot reasons, but I picked up this book because I wanted to see these girls—or at least Saskia—form the kind of bond with their Mercury Boys that would be worth the “jealousy, violence, and secrets” the summary promised me. None of them managed that, in my opinion.
Recommendation: Borrow it someday. There are a lot of good ideas in MERCURY BOYS, but too few of those ideas are given the space they need to develop properly. Ultimately, I picked up MERCURY BOYS expecting one kind of story, only to have my expectations subverted in a way that disappointed and frustrated me.