Beyond the Rails II: Soldier of the Crown is a fantastic return to form for indie author Jack Tyler. Following once again the crew of the airship Kestrel in 1880’s colonial Kenya, these six new stories are a welcome continuation, further building the world, developing the characters and shaking up the status quo.
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We pick up not long after the events of the last book and Tyler continues to succeed in his episodic, almost TV Season like approach to storytelling. The memories of “last season’s finale” are still fresh as he picks up a new adventure with the Kestrel crew. Only Captain Monroe, the American cowboy Smith, and the young tagalong botanist Dr. Ellsworth remain to keep the ship aloft and take on new missions. Even in her absence though, the prodigious pilot Patience Hobbs leaves a noticeable impression on the others, like a daughter who has run away from home and might not come back this time. Though Tyler never lets us forget her, he uses the break wisely to let the others stand out and prove their worth. Monroe languishes over keeping the Kestrel in the air and on mission, and Smith with his Peacemaker and rugged Clint Eastwood charm always entertains.
Previous Prussian engineer Gunther has vanished between seasons like an actor who asked for more money in the offseason and didn’t get it. I thought he more than earned his keep but I can’t say as I missed him for long, so maybe it was for the best. Ellsworth covers for him in the engine room until he’s replaced but still can’t find time to be as interesting as the rest of the cast. As for Hobbs, I won’t spoil what Tyler does with her, but he makes sure we don’t forget about her and he definitely uses the absence to enhance the story. In fact, the first couple tales she sits out are easily some of Tyler’s best crafted stories.
The first is a quick jumpstart, sucking you back to the audacious African frontier with Tyler’s usual sense of mystery and danger. This time it’s reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as they find themselves trapped with a family of mad scientists. The third story (one of my favorites) takes a break from the action when one of their passengers lures them into his international treasure hunt, evoking a Raiders of the Lost Ark, feel. Tyler plays with a lot of fun but familiar tropes: the daring escape, the interrogation of a bad guy high in the air, the race-against-the-clock chase to save a life, or the framed-for-murder mystery. Each is familiar to anyone who has seen an action movie in the last forty years, but Tyler handles each one with poise, using the various scenes to illuminate his characters, build suspense, or tease us into second guessing our own expectations.
Tyler’s writing was good before, but his straightforward and direct style is even sharper this time. His extensive research makes me wonder once again about the kind life he’s lived. His maritime vocabulary and proficiency with the mechanics of the ship’s boiler suggest he could quite possibly build his own airship and tour us across Kenya himself if he felt like it. Unlike a lot of steampunk, he keeps one foot firmly grounded in real life and doesn’t get swept up in fanciful genre indulgences. I wouldn’t call this hard science-fiction just yet, but his “steampunk-light” approach retains the kind of gravitas and depth that we all first fell in love with during 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in 80 Days, where one good premise is enough to inspire awe rather than a slew of improbable gadgets and pedantic mad scientists. Not to say he doesn’t dip his toes into some darkly ominous human experiments, but when he does he stops short of gratuity to make sure his characters and their experience come first. To say it works is an understatement. I loved it and it’s a high standard for others in the genre to live up to.
His guest stars once again are so compelling that he fools me almost every time into thinking they’re about to join the cast. The underrated Chang Wei, the treasure hunting Eric Hafner, or the Maasai priestess Darweshi all prove to be as fully realized as the main cast. Recurring characters like Governor General Sanderson or the barman Faraji are equally delightful. I look for them every time we return to port.
As the Kestrel rises above Mombasa, you really feel like you’ve joined their crew. Part of that comes with time, having simply had more exposure to the characters after twelve stories total, but their interactions really do feel more authentic and “in the moment” this time. And that’s what makes these stories so compelling. Like Star Trek or Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica, you really want to be a part of this family and you wonder what they’re up to between scenes. Part of that comes as a result of Tyler’s story-craft. For each main plot, there are little digressions, mini-episodes, or scenes that stand on their own, like a meal at the bar, or the negotiation of a new fare, or an innocuous walk through the market before being mugged. Or even just the denouement after the dust has settled where they discuss the mundane practicalities of refueling, restocking and how they’ll find their next paid gig. When each story ends, the most satisfying element is the excitement of wondering what mayhem and misadventure is lurking behind the horizon.
I’m sure Tyler’s next novel Stingaree will be his best work yet, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little bummed that it’s causing a delay in Beyond the Rails III. A reveal at the end ties together a handful of previously disconnected loose ends going all the way back to the opening story in book one. A new arrangement with Kenya’s Governor General in the second story, for example, creates an interesting subplot early on, but it never really comes to fruition. Either he set it up to throw us off (which actually worked on me since I kept waiting for it to backfire) or he’s still getting to his big payoff. Little narrative references along the way suggest that while Tyler likes each story or episode to appear unique and independent that he still wants to make sure we’re following the breadcrumbs. He’s building to something and I want to know what it is, and that might be the best compliment I can give above all the rest, is that he’s got me hooked. As a reviewer, he’s turned me into a fan, and now like the rest of you, I have to wait for more.
Conclusion: 5 out of 5 stars. I usually save this for the kind of professional-level books you find in a book store, but if I could find anything like this from a traditional publisher, I’d buy it for sure. Tyler succeeds in taking us along for another African airship adventure and like the season finale to your favorite guilty pleasure, you can’t wait till next year to see what’s going to happen.