Monday, May 21, 2012

Steampunk Books, Part the Third

My previous steampunk book reviews can be found here and here.

The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam, Book One) by Andrew P. Mayer

I really, really liked this book. I have to be honest and admit that I judged this book by its cover, which is actually not that bad, but I read the hand-drawn illustration as amateurish and wasn't in a big hurry to read it. But I'm on something of a mission to read ALL steampunk books, so I went ahead. And I was so pleasantly surprised. At first I was enjoying this fun and exciting book about Victorian era superheroes called The Paragons, and the daughter of one of them who wanted to be involved but was locked out due to her sex. But as the book went on, and I progressed through multiple mysteries and mysterious unknown characters and action sequences, I started to get unreasonably attached to the heroine Sarah, and the Automaton, Tom. And towards the end I got quite emotional and angry about their situation. The book ended with a bit of resolution and a bit of a cliffhanger and I am ashamed to say I had ordered the sequel from Amazon within 10 minutes of having finished the book. (Ashamed because I shouldn't be spending the money.)

But this is really an exemplar steampunk novel. The use of technology and gadgets and steam power is among the best I've read. But the characters are also particularly good. They are very clearly VICTORIAN characters, regardless of the fact that they dress in leather costumes and fight clockwork powered super-villains. Sarah especially falls on the right side of the line between a rebellious Victorian woman and a totally out-of-character-for-her-time Mary Sue. And I always appreciate when I believe the characters are of the period.

I did read the second book in the series, Hearts of Smoke and Steam .  It's not as good as the first one.  The plotting and pace feel slightly off and I didn't connect with this story as much as the first one.  But this book sets up the future of the series in promising ways.   Really, if you're interested in steampunk fiction, you need to read this series.

The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale by Mike Resnick

This alternate history steampunk version of Tombstone, the gunfight at the OK Corral, etc, is fast-paced and enjoyable. Doc Holliday is a likable main character. But overall, this book is just ok. The characters don't really stand out or mean much. The tech is cool, the use of Native magic is cool, the character of Kate Elder is briefly cool. But it's not exactly a book that's going to MOVE you in any way. And there was a little too much concentration on robot whores for my taste. Like, ok, we get it, move on. You're a little too fascinated with the idea of the robot whores, Mr. Author. It's getting creepy.

Ultimately, the big shootout and end of the book is a total letdown. It was over really quick and didn't really payoff in a way that satisfied. But it's worth a read if you like Weird West or Western Steampunk and want a light, fun read. I just wish there was more substance or significant character development.   This is really a boy's fantasy world of cool sci-fi cowboys and guilt-free robot sex.  Unfortunately, as a novel, I find it falls a bit flat.

 The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker
The number one reason to read this book is that it is available as a free download from Amazon for Kindle (I don't own a Kindle, but I got Kindle for PC in order to read free books).  Now the spectacular thing about this book is that it is free and it is really good.  It's so good that I've actually bought and read the next three books in the series as well.  For the longest time I was unwilling to give this series the label of steampunk.  It's set in a fantasy world.  The empire in which the action takes place is reminiscent of the Discworld.  Guns are illegal, so most fighting is with swords, but there is steam technology.  But there is very little description of tech or fashion or anything that would confidently label this steampunk.  There is also magic in this world, though it is outlawed within the empire.  But the fourth book has airships, so I am just gonna call it steampunk and be done.

At any rate, the series is well worth a read.  The main character Amaranthe is the only female member of the captial city's police force, at least until she gets drawn into political intrigue surrounding the young Emperor.  She is sent to kill the notorious assassin Sicarius, who for some reason doesn't instantly murder her for trying.  The two of them form an uneasy alliance to discover what plot is threatening the Emperor, and the plot goes from there.  Eventually Amaranthe puts together a group of misfits that fight for the good of the emperor while being on the run from the law.  The author knows how to create truly captivating characters, and there is a lot of skillful character development throughout the series.  The majority of the books are action oriented and the pace rarely lags.  There's also a touch of romance, but of a very limited and implied kind.  I've rarely been so frustrated and yet captivated by a romance at the same time.

The same author also has Flash Gold (a steampunk novella set in the Yukon) (The Flash Gold Chronicles) available for free.  It's an enjoyable short tale about a girl entering a dogsled race with a steam-powered sled and the mysterious man she hires to guard her from pirates and bandits and her competitors.  My only problem with it is that the characters might as well be the same as the two lead characters of the Emperor's Edge series.  I'll still probably cough up the couple of bucks the sequels cost.

There are some other free steampunk novels available for Kindle, but I either haven't gotten around to reading them or have tried them and wasn't impressed by the writing.  But I won't review a book based on a few pages, so I'll leave you guys to try them out yourselves.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea
 by Jules Verne
I had never read anything by Jules Verne, and I inherited a leatherbound version of this book with my dad's book collection.  So when I was out of things to read one night, I thought, "Why not?"  Now, I know this will be controversial, but I have to say I don't think much of this book.

First of all, I LIKE Victorian literature.  I've been enjoying the original Sherlock Holmes stories since I was 11.  I was an English major.  I've read Victorian literature in both English and French, and enjoyed it.  So I think I was well-prepared to enjoy this work.  But, the truth is that I haven't.  I seriously doubt that many people out there have actually read this book, and not just seen the Disney movie version.  Because this book is incredibly boring.  The narrator is a biologist specializing in marine species and he gets picked up by Captain Nemo and the Nautilus after he nearly drowns.  What follows is hundreds of pages in which the narrator talks about the marine life, using mostly scientific or outdated species names.  Again, I think I'm pretty well equipped to understand a discussion of marine life.  I'm not a biologist in any way, but I watch my share of nature documentaries and I really enjoy snorkeling, so I think I know more about ocean life than most people.  But what the majority of the book reads like to me is reminiscent of the adult speak from Charlie Brown cartoons.  Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish, algae, gibberish, gibberish, phosphorescent, gibberish.

Let's play the Open the Book to a Random Page Game.  Ok, so I ended up on page 83 in my book, which is actually fairly interesting as they are preparing to leave the ship.  But about one third of the page is as follows:
 "I did honor to the repast.  It was composed of several different kinds of fish, and slices of holothuridae (excellent zoophytes), and different sorts of seaweed.  Our drink consisted of pure water, to which the captain added some drops of a fermented liquor, extracted by the Kamschatcha method from a seaweed known under the name of Rhodomenia palmata."

So, yeah.  I haven't finished reading this book yet, and considering how intensely I've been avoiding it, I doubt that I ever will.  I pushed myself along for a while, telling myself that Part II would be more interesting (it's not) or that surely the ending would be worth it.  I'm more than 3/4 of the way done with it, and I just don't have the will to continue.  It honestly reads like someone was looking for a way to teach kids about aquatic life.  According to the introduction, all the extraneous detail is in order to make the reader buy the larger sci-fi setting of the story, but all I can say is that its something of an accomplishment to make traveling in a submarine through secret caves with a mysterious captain boring.  Not even the occasional shark or giant clam attack makes up for the much lengthier passages in which nothing at all happens except the narrator looks out the window.

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