Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Book Review: The Iron Wyrm Affair
The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow
On the surface, this steampunk novel is difficult to distinguish from the throng of recent books seeking to capitalize on the popularity of steampunk as a subgenre. A male/female investigation team seeks to stop a conspiracy that's looking to bring down the Crown and the British Empire using their special gifts. I've lost count of the number of books I've read at this point with that same basic plot.
But actually, this novel does set itself apart by its inclusion of fantasy elements. In fact, this steampunk world is defined less by its technology and more by its sorcery. Magic and sorcery dominate most of the plot and the way sorcery works in this world is particularly well thought-out and original.
The characters are also strong. Emma Bannon is a Prime Sorceress, one of the strongest in the land, a confidant of the Queen herself. She's bold and fearless, loyal to her duty but dismissive of convention. I quite like having a female lead who kicks a huge amount of ass but moans over the damage done to her outfits. Archibald Clare is a mentath, a super-intelligent individual gifted at deductions and easily distracted by minutiae. In short, he is Sherlock Holmes, with a bit less style and a bit more dorkiness. (At first I was a bit cynical about his character. He takes drugs! He plays violin! He makes deductions! He's Totally Not Sherlock Holmes! But he did individuate himself more as the book went on.)
So if the strengths of the book are its characters and it's unique combination of sorcery and steampunk, it has its weaknesses as well. The book throws you into the world with absolutely no explanations of the world, the rules, or even really what is going on. It throws quite a lot of invented language at you and demands you keep up. This can be a tricky thing to really pull off well in a fantasy novel and I'm not entirely convinced this one is successful. I spent a large part of the novel confused or feeling at sea, constantly trying to grasp at new bits of world-building. So I think there's a real danger of a reader being very confused by this world and this story. More than not explaining the world, there is quite a lot of character backstory that is never fully elaborated on, but merely hinted at throughout. It really would have been something of a relief to have a big explanation at some point, but its not there.
And then there's my least favorite part of the book: the names. The story is set in a Victorian London that is pretty indistinguishable from the historical London, except for all the sorcery. But to make sure that the reader knows this is an alternate world, the author has VERY SLIGHTLY changed all the place and people names. London is Londinium. Mayfair is Mayefair, the East End is the Eastron End, Whitechapel is Whitchapel. Queen Victoria is Victrix and Albert is Albrech. In my opinion this renaming is at best twee and precious and at worst comes off like the author really needs a spellchecker. It's distracting and pulls the reader right out of the story, which is probably the exact opposite effect from what it's supposed to accomplish. Seriously, writers, let's not do this, ok? We can leave names the same and still realize we're in an alternate setting. I've seen me do it.
In a slightly less important gripe, I had a problem with the fact that the male half of the team is constantly referred to as Clare, because I swear every time I read that I pictured a female and then had to readjust my mental image. Another writing tip: if you think it's cute to constantly refer to your male lead with a female name and your female lead with a male name, it's actually just confusing.
So what's the bottom line? I can't say that this is one of my favorite books ever, or favorite steampunk books. But it has a lot of good points and I suspect its flaws will improve as the series continues. If some of the writing issues even out, this could turn into a really fun series. I guess we'll see.