It is all too easy in young adult fiction to get all preachy and didactic, talking down to young readers as if they need Life Lessons underlined in bright red crayon. (This will be on the test, kids.) It takes a skilled writer indeed to tell socially relevant and thought-provoking stories for young readers while avoiding pretentiousness. Oisín McGann, happily, is just such a writer, with a gift for marrying high adventure storytelling to topical themes. The Gods and Their Machines is an allegory about the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine, but in a sense it could be a story about any period in human history in which imperialist, advanced societies have lorded it over their less developed neighbors. (This despite such obviously current events-inspired plot elements as suicide bombers.)
The advanced society here is the nation of Altima. Drawn along the ever-popular steampunk template, Altima is a land of biplanes, tall buildings and wealth. Neighboring Bartokhrin is larger but poorer, mostly agrarian, its people governed by strict adherence to primitive religious doctrine.
Chamus Aranson is the son of a prominent Altiman military family, and a student pilot himself. As the novel opens, his entire class (he was luckily running late) has been wiped out by a Bartokhrin suicide bomber, and his desire for vengeance against the entire nation wars with feelings of confusion. After all, so many natives of Bartokhrin come to Altima seeking work; why are they so full of hate?
Riadni Mocranen is the tomboyish daughter of a Bartokhrin family, straining at the leash of unattainable independence in a land where women are seen and not heard, and girls her age must forever conceal their features under heavy makeup and wigs until they marry (their husbands being the only men by law allowed to see their real features for the first time). Though Riadni's father indulges her learning to ride horses, her learning to shoot is going a little too far. After a nasty family row, she runs away in the night, thinking to join a group of "freedom fighters" (or "terrorists," depending on which side of the barrel you're on) called the Hadram Cassal, led by a friend of her father's, Lakram Elbeth.
It turns out that Chamus has crash-landed a solo flight right in Bartokhrin territory after losing his bearings, and Riadni comes upon him in the wilderness while on her way to Elbeth's hideout. Tying Chamus up and leaving him to report the crash to the Hadram Cassal, she is horrified when she learns that Elbeth's men are interested only in killing the boy outright. Though loyal to her country, simple murder is too much, and Riadni recovers Chamus before the Hadram Cassal can get to him. With her bridges thoroughly burned, Riadni has no choice but to guide Chamus back to Altima across territory hostile to them both. Whether she can ever pick up the pieces of her life again is an open question.
There could have been so many ways in which the story could have gone all wrong at this point, lapsing into mawkishness, sermonizing and false sentiment. McGann skirts all of these temptations, while delivering the scenes you pretty much expect to see (arguments over culture clashes and whose fault the war is) with class. What is most admirable about the book is that, like the present day turmoil McGann is referencing, the situation has by now spiralled so far out of hand that it's not longer about who's to blame. Both sides are at fault, with more than enough blame to go around. Both sides have become blinded by ideology, their obsession with winning having totally obscured the fact that the war cannot be won, only stopped. While so much fiction about war (whether pro or anti) is simplistically jingoistic, McGann paints an effective portrait of war's senselessness, regardless of causes or blame.
There are a few fumbles in the execution. The book has at least two endings, and its ultimate resolution is a little pat, though in the hands of a lesser writer, one quails at the thought of how vomitrociously "can't we all just get along?" sentimental it could have gotten. The Gods and Their Machines turns out to be the rare sort of solid YA fiction that appeals just as well to adults, and gets its job done much better than many similar stories by its adult-fiction counterparts.