The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding
(I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
This book is actually the third in the series called "The Tales of the Ketty Jay." I haven't read the first two and although I knew there was some sort of prequel, I didn't realize this was the third book. For the most part I was able to read this as a stand alone novel without any problems. However, I do wonder if a lot of my confusion about the setting, at least at the beginning of the book was due to not having read the previous entries.
The Iron Jackal is part of a growing subgenre of steampunk stories: airship pirate stories. The action follows the crew of the ship The Ketty Jay and their various adventures. And action is certainly the right word. The book mostly consists of one large action set-piece after another, with lots of shooting, running, flying, and some more shooting. This book isn't at all afraid of violence and having its heroes kill people.
In fact, I have to say that the high body count and cavalier attitude to slaughter turned me off a bit at first. The book opens with a fairly lengthy section about a train heist. The heist is taking place in the fictional country of Samarla, which has a fairly complicated social structure that took me a while to understand. The country seems to be modeled somewhat on India, with three different nationalities: the Samarlans, Daks, and Murthians. To the best of my understanding the Samarlans (the villains of the piece) are dark skinned, while the two races they enslave are lighter skinned. So there's quite a lot of time spent with our light-skinned European-analogue heroes killing lots of evil dark-skinned people.
It was enough to make me give the book quite the side-eye. I'm not sure why you would set your story up that way, especially having the dark-skinned people be slavers of lighter skinned (not sure exactly what that means, but blond hair was mentioned) people who ultimately the heroes end up rescuing. One of the advantages of setting steampunk stories in a fantasy universe would be avoiding the colonialist heritage of our own history. So I'm not sure why you'd set things up to be, well, problematic in an entirely new way.
So, if you can get past that issue, (which continued to crop up and nag at me throughout the book) you may find this book quite enjoyable. Particularly if you enjoy lots of action in your narratives. The action is well-written and mostly well-paced although I felt some sequences, especially the opening heist took too long. The overall plot is very strong, but suffers from the novel taking nearly 100 pages to actually get to the main plot, and other delays along the way. The novel is quite long for an adventure novel, the trade paperback clocking in at 479 pages.
One of the strengths of the book is definitely its characters. The Ketty Jay has quite a lot of crew members, and they all (or maybe most) have detailed and divergent backstories. At first I felt like I didn't quite have a handle on the characters, since so much early on focused on action. But by the end I was getting attached to them and several of them were nicely fleshed out and developed over the course of the story.
As for the world itself, I do miss the Victorian parts of steampunk in the world of the Ketty Jay. This book is much closer to the TV show Firefly than anything Victorian. There are airships and weird tech, but most of the tech is based on a supernatural force called daemonism rather than steam or real-world technology. So it's a world that would sit better with the post-apocalyptic crowd than the neo-Victorian. And that's fine if that's your thing, but I find myself missing the fancy side of things.
Basically I think that I'm not the ideal audience for this novel, being that action in books isn't one of my favorite things, and that I prefer my steampunk to have strong Victorian elements one way or another. But it is well written and ultimately rewarding.