Amidst all the ranting and raving about ebooks vs. "real" books, I take no sides. I prefer real books, but I do have a Kindle and use it and like it and don't feel judge-y about what people use to read. However, every now and then something pops up that tips me closer to the "real books only!" side, and Bats of the Republic is one of those items. This gorgeous book is chock full of illustrations, both of the drawn kind and of the re-created handwritten letters, and at the end, a very special envelope containing something we've been waiting for during the entire book. You can illustrate things on a Kindle, but it just doesn't feel the same--especially not the actual envelope.
Bats follows two storylines, one of fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas who, back in 1843, is sent on an impossible errand across the unsettled American West by a man whose daughter, Elswyth, Zadock wants desperately to marry. He is determined to succeed on this quest in order to win her hand. But the journey takes some unexpected detours, not the least of which involves Zadock's being rescued by bats. Yes, in this book, bats are wonderful creatures, not rabid, vampiric monsters.
The second storyline takes place 300 years later, when Zeke Thomas is part of a world gone very, very wrong, and much like Zadock battles the Wild Wild West of American history, Zeke is living through a dystopian version of that West. His grandfather has died and Zeke is expected to take his Senate seat, which could give him the power and opportunity to try and change the mess America has become. But there's a letter missing that might detail things from his past, things that might upset his right to take that seat of power and escape the misery of his current life with his "pair" Eliza.
There is definitely a reason why we have a Zadock/Zeke and an Elswyth/Eliza. Their worlds are parallel in many ways. And yes, I had to stop and think many times about the author's name.
Speaking of the author, he's written a deeply engaging, fun book that carries these two worlds in full and makes us mostly care about the characters. I had minor quibbles; there are some points where I think the author did so much research that he couldn't resist putting it in the story, even though the reader didn't really need it. Then there are some stylistic choices that don't quite work, one of which involves a section with white font on dark brown paper. Yes, there's a reason for it--but I hate reading white font on a dark background, so that was a distraction for me. In the end, I wish a little more time had been spent with Zadock and Elswyth and less with Zeke and Eliza, the latter of whom is not as fleshed out as the other characters.
But that said, this was a hard book to put down, and I could definitely see myself reading it again today, knowing how it ends, just to see how the author put it all together in the first place. The illustrations are beautiful, the quality of the physical book is a joy to hold--the paper itself is lovely, the dust jacket is lovely, each page's layout is thoughtful. One can only wonder what the author will do as a follow-up.