Kind of like one part Frances Hodgson Burnett, one part E. M. Forster, and a tiny pinch of Philip Pullman, this book is pretty good but lacks the masterful touch and structural integrity of those big names. It is also hurt by its hugely misleading description/presentation.
This novel is divided into two very different parts, which actually would have read better as two novellas published separately. Part One (itself subtitled "The Night Watchman Express") is essentially a Gothic, set in some kind of large manor house, and concerns the recently-orphaned Mirium, her awful new guardians the Marchpanes, and most of all her relationship with her new nanny, Mana. Part Two (subtitled "Big Star Island") is a Colonialist's dream, set on some kind tropical island called Lampala (Mana's homeland), which has its own complex and believable language and culture, and concerns Neil, a school friend of the Marchpanes' son Simon from Part One, after he travels there to look for Mana after her kidnapping. While both of these settings fit in with the old-fashioned Burnett/Forster feel that DeLuca is clearly going for, the sum total amounts to a long set-up for future books, since nothing from Part 1 every gets resolved in Part 2: that is, Mirium's story is dropped entirely.
And, weirdly, there is almost no mention of the titular train, the titular machine, or any factory or laboratory. Whenever the train or machine came up, I'd get excited only to have them summarily dropped again. And while there is something vaguely magical or (probably ultimately) steampunky about the easy proximity of Lampala to the mainland where Mirium et al live, it is barely touched upon. I imagine this will come in later installments, but I wish it had been more thoroughly introduced here.
I enjoyed this, but in the end I wish that the description I read before sampling and purchasing this book had been more accurate, and the title more appropriate, because these things really affected my expectations. Perhaps Part One should be re-released as "Crown Phoenix Book One: Mirium and the Marchpanes", and part two as "Crown Phoenix Book Two: Neil and the Island" or some such. If presented like that, I would have finished One, immediately purchased Two to find out what happened to Mirium et al., been confused by the change in setting and focus, but immediately purchased Book/Part Three to find out how it's all connected. However as it stands, I have less faith that the next installment will improve upon the structural or presentational problems of the first.
Also, on a completely different note, I had trouble with the ages of the "children". I think that the girls Mirium and Riki are supposed to be around 12 or so, and the boys Simon and Neil around 16(?) but sometimes around 13(?). This made their relations a little confusing and sometimes awkward.
Overall, a fun read for anyone who likes old-fashioned children's and/or Colonial Era literature. So long as you know, going in, that there be very little in the way of magic or steampunk.
(reviewed 8 months after purchase)