Cerulean Rust by William J Jackson is the second in a series of semi-dystopian steampunk novels set in Rail City, Missouri, during the 1880s. It takes place in the wake of a cosmic explosion and the failed league of paranormal heroes The Guild of Honor that it temporarily produced. It’s dark, heavy and dirty as it draws us into the charisma of its characters only to drag them through the mud.
Jackson’s first novel An Unsubstantiated Chamber has grown on me since I first read it a year prior and I was eager to see where this follow-up would take me. While the first installment revolved around a status quo of murder-mysteries, this one quickly throws aside any previous formula. We’ve also switched from a first person memoir-like narrator to a third person focus, and though it adds a little more cinematic wiggle room, I was impressed I hardly noticed the difference. The transition is smoother than I would’ve guessed, so much so that I had to go double check. This allows Jackson to break up his dynamic duo of Professor Flag Epsom and Aretha Astin and send them on conflicting subplots, while also providing focus to new characters. Tad, a gravedigger, formerly Chance of the Guild of Honor, is a breakout star for example. And a small band of youthfully optimistic acrobats are a joyful addition as they try to fill the big shoes the Guild left behind. But the biggest benefit comes right at the opening, when we see a side to Flag Epsom that is hauntingly personal and tragic, and breathes so much unexpected life into an otherwise gruff, and almost comedically cold exterior.
Jackson also expands his scope to broader issues of race and class warfare (literally, at times) in a way that lesser writers might be accused of tacking on. In this case though, it adds verisimilitude, transforming Rail City into something that bleeds and feels pain, like any real historical city of the industrial era at the center of painful change and complex racial dynamics. While others might devolve into preaching, Jackson eschews the black and white absolutism in favor of in-fighting and moral grayness, instead. This is especially evident as tensions reach a fever-pitch and boil over into some harsh and drawn out action sequences in the second act. I felt the action in the first novel took second string to its intrigue, but here it is reversed. The intrigue is good, but the action is great. It’s dark and heavy and characters will die. And worse, the characters that survive have to make hard choices along the way that often produce greater consequences.
All the best qualities from the first novel have returned. A somber, dreary aesthetic. A gritty, world-weary tone. Moral ambiguity. Creative descriptions of original characters and paranormal abilities (the Undying Man, the Casket, Opaque, and Acrobat in Azure are all catchy and memorable). Intimate examinations of our lead characters’ emotional burdens in a way that draws you in. But Jackson doesn’t just stop with the hits. This is his Empire Strikes Back. All your favorites and more are together again and closer than ever but are soon to be pulled apart. Just as that great sequel expanded the universe of its predecessor and then tore the heart in two for a tragically unresolved conclusion, so also Cerulean Rust expands all the backstory and context of its original and tears our heroes apart before its completion. Just like watching Empire for the first time, I said to myself, this can’t be the end. It’s not finished! But, wait I must for whatever fate Jackson holds in store. This story is no less dismal when its characters learn the fate of their comrades just before the epilogue denies them any time to go after them.
Even more than leaving us holding our breath at the end, Jackson still refuses to expound much more on the mysterious backstory he keeps eluding to of the Spaceman and his Lunar bride. Somehow they are tied to the negatrite explosion which started this whole mess, years prior, and for some reason their power is greater than anyone else’s, yet they are perpetually absent. I don’t know if there is another side-story or installment which Jackson is referencing that might tell the tale, or if he just has that firm a grasp on his alternate history and that much restraint. An interlude somewhere near the middle starts to hint at the Spaceman’s story, raising my hopes for a third act appearance in the climax. But instead the payoff Jackson had in mind is much more tantalizing, even if withholding. The novel ends with a clue, or a puzzle piece, that harkens to the Spaceman and his inevitable relevance in the next installment, but we’ll have to come back if we want to see what it means.
Bonus: Like its predecessor, Cerulean Rust does feature some bonus material in the back, which delves deeper into the backstory of the negatrite explosion which so drastically changed Rail City and its inhabitants. I’m glad Jackson kept this separate though, as it would’ve bogged down the novel, structurally speaking. As a bonus feature, it’s a nice add-on along with a previously published short story from Nebula Rift.
Conclusion: 4.5 out of 5 stars. William J Jackson proves extremely adept at building an interesting world and walking you through it just as the walls are crumbling around your feet. His characters will grow on you and his mysteries will lure you in deeper. Both books are available on Amazon for electronic or print and are worthy additions that will stand out from the rest of your collection.