The Lens and the Looker: Book #1 of the Verona Series (History Camp: the Verona Trilogy)
By Lory S. Kaufman
Genre: Young Adult
Published 2011, The Fiction Studio
Paperback, 322 pages
It's the 24th century and humans, with the help of artificial intelligences, (A.I.s) have finally created the perfect society. To make equally perfect citizens for this world, the elders have created History Camps, full-sized recreations of cities from Earth’s distant pasts. Here teens live the way their ancestors did, doing the same dirty jobs and experiences the same degradations. History Camps teach youths not to repeat the mistakes that almost caused the planet to die. But not everything goes to plan.Like in all groups of youth, there are those who rebel, “hard cases” who just don’t get it. In this first installment of a trilogy, three spoiled teens from the year 2347 are kidnapped back in time to 1347 Verona, Italy. There they are abandoned and left with only two choices: adapt to the harsh medieval ways, or die. Hansum, almost 17, is good looking, athletic and, as his A.I. teacher says, he can charm the fuzz off a peach. Shamira is 15. She has green eyes, auburn hair, and a Caucasian complexion. That's something people don't see that much of in the 24th century. She's sassy, independent and has an artistic genius for drawing. Lincoln, 14, is the smart-aleck. But you don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find his insecurities.There are two types of artificial intelligences (A.I.s) in the 24th-century. The first are authorized by society and very conservative. Then there are ‘genies’. Made by black-market hackers, or blackers, these rascals are the bi-polar opposite of their unadventurous cousins. A genie’s aim in life is to help rebellious youth make mischief. Pan, is a very mischievous genie. A curious mix of past and future, he’s an eccentric, all-knowing, holographic artificial intelligence in the cartoon shape of the vaunted Greek god. Pan's antics and insights get the kids both into and out of trouble.Our three teen protagonists meet at a History Camp where everything and everybody must act like it is 14th-century Verona, Italy. Society’s plan is to put trouble-making kids into situations where they are “scared straight”. But Hansum knows better. He’s aware that behind the scenes there are armies of humans and A.I.’s making sure they are safe. Using Pan, the teens devise a plan to drive the History Camp enactors crazy, and they succeed. But what they’re not prepared for is that a History Camp elder from the 31st century, (where time-travel is possible) kidnaps them back to the real medieval Verona. Here they are indentured to an alcoholic lens maker. Now, unquestionably, the dangers are real.All of this is hardly the ideal environment to fall in love – but, for Hansum, that’s exactly what happens. Guilietta is the beautiful daughter of the master the teens are working for. She becomes the star-crossed and time-crossed lover of our story’s Romeo - Hansum. In fact, the novel is peppered with lots of fun allusions to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In an attempt to survive the teenage trio, with Pan’s help, risks introducing technology from the future. It could save them – or it could change history.The premise of this book was quite intriguing, so I had high hopes to see how this concept of "History Camps" played out using the city of Verona in the year 1347. What I did not really understand was why Hansum and Lincoln were specifically cast as lens-maker apprentices. Kaufman goes into extreme detail regarding the intricacies of making lenses for eye glasses with rudimentary tools of that time period, and quite a bit of the book is devoted to the education of the process and the modernization of the tools used. Seeing the lens-making business in practice in the "real" Verona showed that the "lenses for the eyes" contributed as more of a novelty for the wealthy and educated than a wide-spread tool used by the masses. In contrast, Shamira's role as kitchen girl made much more sense to me, as that is a generic role that would not necessarily impede the progression of plot.
Backing up, I was very interested in the present-day time period of 2347 and the few details that Kaufman spared regarding this society. Unfortunately, not much is explained about how this society came to be. A brief explanation is given for the planetary population of 300 million, along with other random details interspersed throughout the book, such as every child born is paired with an A.I., people are implanted with a device that keeps disease and infection at bay, and parents are only allowed to have one child with a lottery sometimes allowing for a second child. The purpose of the History Camps are explained through the rebellious attitudes of the three main characters and how they can easily manipulate the system for their own entertainment. As a parent, the word that continually echoed through my head regarding these children in the Hard-Time History Camp is "Spoiled!" Though they are supposed to be learning about how the rebellion of the human populations of the past caused everything from war, to disease, to poverty and famine, the way the children are coddled and protected from any sort of real pain or hardship makes me wonder how these History Camps ever accomplished anything of lasting value in any child.
Once the children are brought to the real Verona and abandoned as orphans, they finally begin to get a taste of real difficulty and hardship, but this is where the believability ends for me. The children had a single day in the History Camp Verona to get acquainted with their roles, and they show up in the real Verona as near-experts, maneuvering the details of their jobs to accommodate for comfort and ease of use that the family they work for is not familiar with, of course all with the help and direction of a very convenient genie. On top of all of this, the three children become agreeable, cooperative, and hard-working practically overnight, with little sign of the rebellious tendencies that put them in a History Camp in the first place. These transitions in character development felt forced to me.
Another aspect that really bugged me from the beginning of the book was the awkwardness of the dialog throughout the book, specifically regarding the children's speech. It felt stilted and over-simplified, and slowed down my reading because I consistently felt that children today did not speak like this. Some of the speech of the people native to the real Verona also seemed strange, but I attributed that to the speech of the time period.
Many of the characters took on unique facets that made them rather memorable to me, such as Ugilino's looks and arrogance, Signora della Cappa's madness, and Shamira's artistic inclinations. The budding romance between Hansum, or "Romero", and Guilietta copies the Shakespearean play, "Romeo and Juliet", in many ways, down to the presence of a Father Lurenzano, and I have to wonder about Kaufman's motivations for working this tale into the plot. And again, their romance also felt forced and over-the-top, missing the reality-warping conviction that is obvious in the original Shakespeare story.
I also have to wonder how these advancements that the three children are introducing to 1347 Verona are actually affecting the progression of time, since this is a much harped-upon concern regarding time travel. The only thing that is apparent to both the children and the reader is the quaint changes made to the appearance of the genie. Something else that is also mentioned early on is that this is also the same time period as the Black Plague, which has yet to make an appearance. Hopefully, the next book in the trilogy will address these things, The Bronze and the Brimstone: The Verona Trilogy, Book 2.
This book seemed geared to appeal to pre-teens and young teens in many ways, but as an adult reader, it left much to be desired for me.
The Cover: This cover felt sort of amateurish to me, from the freakish expression of the boy's face, to the random (female?) hand sticking out of the golden bubbles, to the telescope, or "looker", on the cover that I know is out-of-place from reading the book. The one-sentence description also felt awkward, and I badly wanted to reword it.
First Line: "One of Hansum's earliest memories was of his mother telling him he was just like his name sounded in the old English, handsome."
While this explains the strange name of Hansum, this does not really tell me anything about the book itself, nor does it really entice me to keep reading.
Read For: Off the Shelf Challenge
*I received this book free of charge from the publisher for review purposes.*