Tag Archives: steampunk

Review: “The Iron Assassin” by Ed Greenwood

Title: The Iron Assassin
Author: Ed Greenwood
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2015

Ed Greenwood is a legend in certain circles, having created the immensely popular Forgotten Realms fantasy world that serves as one of the primary settings for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game series. I’ve yet to venture into this universe, but I’ve heard a good deal about it from friends and fellow geeks. Now Greenwood is venturing into a new universe, trading in Sword & Sorcery for Steampunk (or, as he refers to it, Gaslamp Fantasy.) The good news? Greenwood’s genius for world creation is unabated. The bad news? The book itself could have used a bit more work to bring it up to the expected degree of awesomeness.

In a world parallel to our own, the Empire of the Lion vies with the Spanish-based Empire of Amirondro and the Indian-based Rajahirate Empire for supremacy over a patchwork world of steam-driven innovation. Victoria III rules from seclusion, kept stubbornly alive with steam-powered heart & lungs while her son shoulders the responsibilities of government in a London rife with conspiracy and intrigue as the Dread Agents of the Tower seek to thwart the schemes of the villainous Ancient Order of the Tentacles. One such agent is Jack Straker, a brilliant (or reckless) inventor of numerous devices for protecting the Crown. His latest masterpiece: a clockwork-driven corpse to serve as the Prince Royal’s bodyguard…if it can be controlled. And if one man can control it, well…the Ancient Order is very interested in figuring out how to wrest that control away from the Crown and put the Iron Assassin to their own use….

While Greenwood is an old hand at classical fantasy, The Iron Assassin is his first foray into the realm of steampunk. Greenwood’s genius is in world creation, and that experience and attention to detail is clearly on display here. The book was a ton of fun, and I will definitely watch for the inevitable continuation. Unfortunately, the book could have used a little more editing before publication. There are numerous fragmentary sentences scattered throughout, and not just in the dialogue where such things are more accepted. The Dramatis Personae section at the beginning is wittily written but overlarge, running ten pages and containing every character found within these pages—even those who appear only long enough to expire. In the end, it’s more harmful than helpful, especially since it gave away the identity of the Ancient Order’s leader (I assume this was meant to be secret, as he was only ever referred to by his title in those sections, and by his name when he was acting in public.) Another sore spot is the somewhat inconsistent characterization. One character is introduced as a complete badass, then dies with barely a whimper. Perhaps forgivable, as the scene itself paints her as caught off guard at the end of a pleasant evening…except that several scenes beforehand it was established that she had managed to deduce that her killer was a member of the Ancient Order, and so should be very much on guard while accepting unexpected dinner invitations from said villain. At another point a character assesses the situation facing him and decides to get out of Dodge…and then shows up pages later at an induction ceremony for the Ancient Order, very much the opposite of fleeing for his life. Finally, there is an unresolved mystery surrounding the former identity of the Iron Assassin, Bentley Steelforce. Or maybe not, as everyone seems to think they know who and what he is: the reanimated body of a chimney sweep by the name of Bentley Roper. Except that there is clearly more to his story–when a startled knight starts to blurt out something about Steelforce’s past to Straker and a group of assembled notables, Steelforce calmly rips out his throat without missing a beat. I kept expecting the matter to be revisited, but it never was. Like I said, I enjoyed the book, but it was merely good when it could have been spectacular.

CONTENT: Surprisingly mild on the profanity front, though the “PG” words get quite a workout alongside the more colorful genre/era-specific cursing that litters nearly every conversation. Strong, sometimes grisly violence, scattered all through the novel. There are not infrequent sexual innuendos, mostly non-explicit, interspersed with slightly more jarring instances of explicit material such as is usually not found in this particular genre (at least so far as I’ve seen), including a clockwork corset for improving the quality of a lady’s “alone time.” There is little occult content, aside from references to a bogus (or is it?) cult that worships an ancient deity that sounds suspiciously like H.P. Lovecraft’s legendary Cthulhu. The Ancient Order supposedly uses this cult to muddy the waters regarding their activities, but there’s a bit of evidence towards the end of the book that suggests there is more to that story than is being said….

This is a longer version of a review I did for the Manhattan Book Review.

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Review: “The Rose Of The West ” by Mark Bondurant

Title: The Rose Of The West
Author: Mark Bondurant
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Bongo Books, 2014

You’ve gotta love a good steampunk western, and Mark Bondurant’s debut novel certainly delivers. The pace is a bit leisurely in the first half, and a couple artifacts from previous versions of the story occasionally pop up, but on the whole I really enjoyed this one. I received my copy in exchange for an honest review through the Goodreads FirstReads program.

Deke Hayden is product of the American West, raised among the Paiutes and fighting by their side against Mexico and their allies after his parents were killed. Now he’s seventeen and on a mission to see the big cities of the East. Kay Mapleton is a girl alone in the world, her family having died off one by one. She’s not hurting for money, as her grandmother’s estate proved quite substantial, but a seventeen-year-old girl cannot live alone and living with her aunt’s family holds no appeal. Instead, she sets out west to find her father, disappeared ten years previous. It would of course be smarter for both of our young protagonists to wait for the Great War between the North and the South to end before setting out, but youth should be allowed some measure of foolishness….

Like I said, I really enjoyed the book. Steampunk is a genre I’ve not explored nearly as much as I’d like, but I’ve been a fan so far. The characters were likeable enough, and I found myself caught up in their adventures despite there being very little mystery as to how things would turn out after the spoiler-ridden introduction. The plot is leisurely, definitely more focused on the journey than the destination, but that’s okay sometimes–I certainly think the book would suffer from any attempt to shorten it or make it conform to the traditional “three act” structure. I will admit that there a few flaws, though, despite my enjoyment.

Now, I love a good alternate history–it’s one of my favorite genres, in fact–but it involves walking a tightrope between changing things enough to warrant the effort and keeping things recognizable. Additionally, you have to identify the inciting incident for the change and tell us what happened to set history onto a different path. This is one of the few places the author suffers a misstep. In the world that’s presented here, the Civil War was somehow delayed until the late 1880s/early 1890s. We aren’t told why, but its easy to rationalize that it had something to do with the increase in steam-driven technology. What’s more difficult to rationalize away is the fact that despite this delay the Presidents of the warring factions are still Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Delaying the Civil War by almost thirty years should make both men too old to fill their historical roles when it finally goes down, or at least force some sort of change, but when he appears in the book Lincoln acts like his normal self (inasmuch as a dead historical character I’ve only read about can “act like his normal self). In my humble opinion, it would have been better to adjust the birth of steam technology backwards than to adjust the war forwards–had there been no mention of the date, that’s the assumption I would have made. The only other quibble I have is that there are a few artifacts from a previous version of the story–namely, references to the characters’ future exploits that then have no place in the future described by the coda. Details below, involving mild spoilers.* Again, a minor quibble and easy to ignore if you aren’t paying close attention, but it bugged me a bit.

CONTENT: Mild profanity, not widespread. Some strong violence and the implication of torture. No explicit sexual content, but plenty of low-detail implied sexual material including the rape and attempted murder of a character along with numerous references to prostitution and related activities.

*Specifically, there are numerous references to the “Hayden Gang,” and at one point it is stated that “It was the first flight of the Hayden Gang from the law, a foreshadow of their trials in the long years to come.” Except that the coda describes their future as legal and aboveboard mine owners, growing rich and having kids.

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Review: “Gideon’s Angel” by Clifford Beal

Title: Gideon’s Angel
Author: Clifford Beal
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Solaris, 2013

I received my copy of Gideon’s Angel through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This in no way influences my review, except to ensure that I was able to get ahold of this book and thus review it. I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. I want to describe it as “steampunk,” but my understanding is that steampunk is usually set in the 1800s (or at least that level of tech and society) whereas this work is firmly set in 1653. If there’s already a term for pseudo-historical fiction with a fantasy touch set in that timeframe, I apologize for not knowing what it is and using it accordingly.

Things are not going well for Richard Treadwell. The English Civil War is over, the King’s Cavaliers lost to the forces of Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, and Charles I has been executed. Treadwell has managed to escape the destruction of his cause, and has spent the past eight years in exile in France, performing a delicate balancing act between loyalty to his exiled king* and his employer, Cardinal Mazarin. When Mazarin informs him that someone is using the forces of Hell to tip the balance in their favor and asks him to spy on the exile court to find out if it is one of the king’s supporters, Treadwell decides that it’s time to get out of Paris. He accepts a mission for one of the king’s more militant supporters that will take him back to his beloved England–to lead a Royalist uprising, one last try to oust Cromwell and his Puritan cronies. Treadwell has other business to tend to as well, including a wife who by now probably considers herself a widow. Unfortunately for Treadwell’s simple worldview, it soon becomes clear that Cromwell’s power is the only thing preventing the more radical Puritan elements from running roughshod over the whole country. Worse still, a demon from the pits of Hell has appeared to a radical Puritan sect masquerading as an angel of light and ordering the death of Cromwell so that the Kingdom of God may be fulfilled. Now instead of assassinating Cromwell Treadwell will be forced to save him–if he can find a way to fight the forces of Hell, gain some allies in his quest, and avoid d’Artagnan, a young Musketeer dispatched by the Cardinal to bear him back to Paris….

I really enjoyed this book. It’s not exactly “high literature,” but I think I’ve very well established that I care far more about a work’s entertainment value than whatever it is critics look for. The world Beal creates here feels very real, slipping in background historical information without making you feel like you’ve been lectured. Some readers will probably wish for more background on the English Civil War, and that’s fine. If they care that much, there are numerous good books on the subject. If they don’t, there’s a Wikipedia article that should give you a good rundown on what happened. Beal manages to evoke seventeenth-century London in all its grimy glory, much as it would have actually been aside from the fact that all the magic we dismiss as superstition is actually going on behind the scenes. Moreover, this magic very much resembles what you would find depicted in the folklore of the era without obvious modern embellishment. I’m not really all that well versed in the history of the Freemasons, so I can’t accurately speak to how they were portrayed here except to say that I very much doubt their claim to date back to the builders of the pyramids. Then again, I doubt they have the tools to summon demons too, so maybe I shouldn’t be too critical. Secondary characters generally proved to be interestingly complex, especially Billy Chard, but I am seeing criticism of how the female characters in the book act. They aren’t weak characters by any means, but they are constrained by their roles in society. Treadwell’s wife has pragmatically joined her fate to that of the officer who took over Treadwell’s land when he was banished and is pregnant with his child. Is she weak for this? Or is she a strong female doing what she has to in order to protect what is left of her family? Treadwell’s Parisian mistress follows him to England rather than stay in Paris and face the scandal of their liasion alone. Weak, for needing Treadwell by her side? Or strong, for following him into whatever dangers he may be facing? Finally, Isabelle decides to follow her father and the rest of Treadwell’s band into battle against the forces of Darkness, deciding that it would be better to fall by his side than live on without him. Possibly a sign of weakness, but look at her situation realistically. She and her father were driven from Spain for their Jewish heritage, her mother dying along the way. Jews do not fare well in the Christian world of the seventeenth century, not even in England. The lot of a young woman alone in the world is already hard enough in this time without adding the burden of religious and ethnic persecution. She would have no respectable means of supporting herself, and could conceivably find herself forced into prostitution–on her own if she was lucky, as no more than a slave if she was not. Is preferring death in battle to such a fate a sign of weakness or of strength? She certainly has no trouble speaking her mind, and in fact berates Treadwell severely for endangering her father when they first meet. I suppose I can understand where some people would find these characters and their portrayal to be weak and sexist, but I respectfully disagree. I submit that instead they are strong characters reacting realistically to a world where women are not treated equally–in fact, I would have more of a problem with them if they demonstrated anachronistic modern sensibilities.** The ending was a little deus ex machina, but on the whole I didn’t mind. I would say that I want to read a sequel, but I don’t think the author could come up with anything to top this in terms of personal impact on the characters–Treadwell’s internal conflict between hating Cromwell and having to save him is very well done, and I fear Beal would prove unable to find something equally interesting as a follow up. We never really got to find out what happened to Treadwell back during the Thirty Years War that introduced him to the world of angels and demons, so I could see maybe writing that up….I’d buy it, anyway.

CONTENT
R-rated language, occasionally harsh but I would argue not gratuitous. Moderately explicit sexual content, as you would expect from a work in this vein.*** A fair amount of violence, from both man and demon. Not usually too gory in its description. There is also a good deal of occult content, as the villains are summoning a demon they believe to be an angel. This demon’s lesser minions dog Treadwell and his friends, and there are multiple encounters with them. One is implied to be a golem, others appear as strange amalgamations of beast(s) and man. For me, this is adequately balanced by the recognition that, as powerful as the forces of Darkness are, God is far more powerful than they. Bottom line: if you’re mature enough to handle the other content, I don’t believe the occult elements should prove to be an issue.

*Charles I was executed, while his son Charles II went into exile. Just in case you were concerned with the historical accuracy of the book. So far as I can tell, this is pretty accurate. You know, aside from the demons and fictional characters roaming London…..

**Please understand, I’m neither defending nor endorsing the inequality of the seventeenth century. Neither is Clifford Beal, for that matter. I’m simply pointing out that it was how it was, and this was the world the characters would have come from. I’m all for equality, but to whitewash history and pretend it was different from it was….that way lies dangerous waters.

***This evokes more than anything a supernatural-tinged Alexandre Dumas novel for me….and you know how bawdry his musketeers could be when they wanted to be.

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