Spinning out of his Voidships universe, the Frozen Beauty series of adventures is full of twists and turns and classic steampunk stylings to make any fan feel at home. Written by Steve Turnbull, the series includes three novellas, each sold separately on Amazon.com, following Captain Qi Zang and her airship as they smuggle ice from the Himalayas down to places like Delhi and Kerala, but mostly get distracted with problems and complications along the way.
Issue 001 “The Chinese Vase” is the first of the batch and faces an uphill battle carrying the burden of all the introductions. It’s also the shortest which might be its saving grace. It doesn’t quite coalesce into as compelling a read as the others but does the legwork of introducing the important characters and the basic premise.
Arriving in Delhi with a batch of Himalayan ice, Captain Qi’s main concern is selling the ice before her competitors can beat her to it. The fact that the ice will melt if they can’t secure a deal fast enough is a nice tension building twist. But her real problem is that the businessmen she deals with are simply too unsavory not to cause complications. The international setting is a wise choice, as is the diverse cast of crewmen from all over the world, especially Asia, but I would’ve liked a little more depth to the cultural flavor. Other than ethnic names and clothing it’s just superficial set dressing that could have been anywhere and made me want more.
Captain Qi Zang is our lead protagonist but struggles to come into focus as a character. Unless you count being female and Chinese she struggles to evolve into much more than her archetype. Turnbull does attempt to give her some character background, but it’s sparse. Background info is not the same as strong characterization which is less about facts and details and more about how they act in the present. The closest we get is her family’s legacy with Frozen Beauty. Basically the vessel is on lease from the crime boss Kuan-Yin Sun until she pays some old debt, but when he threatens to take it away from her it becomes her driving motivation. It sounds compelling enough on paper but unfortunately in execution Captain Qi’s attitude and disposition are just not so exciting as the scenarios she finds herself in. She’s too calm and straight forward to make us fall in love with her.
The street urchin Fanning picks up a lot of this slack though. She’s not part of the crew. She’s not relevant to the core status quo. And she’s such a complete mystery that it’s not even clear if she’s actually a woman or not. The portrayal of Fanning is meant to be gender ambiguous but Turnbull makes a dubious decision about how to portray that when he switches between male and female pronouns to describe her. Make no mistake, Fanning is a “she” (biologically) whether she dresses and acts ambiguously or not, and in spite of whatever plot developments are revealed about her past later in Issue 003. It’s a superficial attempt to overdo the mystery that already surrounds her and results in little more than confusing the reader. It’s an unfortunate experiment that comes off gimmicky and ultimately distracts from what is otherwise a fun wild-card character.
The ending to this first story is clever and not only absolves the conflict but properly sets up the status quo for the crew going forward, much like a good TV show pilot. But its execution again lacks depth and happens almost too quickly, like reading about it in a Wikipedia entry rather than being at the scene. There’s some good suspense when Kuan-Yin Sun has Qi at gunpoint aboard her own vessel as he arrives to take hold of the titular Chinese vase. There’s also mystery as we start to realize what part Fanning will play. But then it just finishes with a lot of expository narrative and we’re denied any denouement with the characters to appreciate how they feel. The late arrival of newcomer Mrs. Cameron, for example, might tell us everything we need to know about her but we don’t get to see her interact with the crew conversationally, or see what the crew thinks of this whole turn of events. It’s abrupt and simple and the story could easily have afforded a few more pages at the end to render their excitement at the success of their ploy.
In short, this first story could’ve really benefited from another draft, bringing life to some of the quieter moments rather than simply narrating over them. Otherwise it’s a tight premise and a quick start to a new series. Throwaway steampunk concepts like the Babbage (a computational device) and the Faraday (a gravity nullification device) and this colonial frontier on the edge of the world type of setting should be enough to convince most readers to keep at it.
Issue 002 “Ladies’ Day” is an immediate improvement. It follows close on the heels of the previous issue and the weather is not looking good on their way across India. A looming storm provides a more exciting hook for the story to grow out of. The ship crashes before it can reach its destination in Kerala and they soon find themselves in a tenuous working relationship with the local upper class elite in the form of one Mrs. Ruane.
Any concerns I had coming out of the first story vanished entirely when I began this one. The writing felt tight and the plot drove forward right from the start. The narrative showed a lot more than it told this time around and I was instantly hooked.
Many of the crewmembers who got little more than a passing mention or some cursory dialogue find themselves with room to breathe and situations to express themselves in. I hadn’t even realized how many of the crew there were. Terry Montgomery and the Frenchman Remy Darras stay behind with the deaf Japanese boy Ichiro while the rest are whisked off to the nearby Ruane estate under a kind of tentative house arrest pending their bona fides. While first mate Ding Bang debates with Qi about their tenuous relationship with the Lady of the estate, we’re also treated to some nice character-centric scenes back at the wreckage, where the pacifist Montgomery manages to help capture some bandits.
Of course it’s Mrs. Cameron who ends up commanding a large role in the story, despite her flat entrance at the end of the previous one. Despite the superficiality of her “proper lady” archetype, she does manage to round out well enough in the end as she’s the only thing keeping Qi and her crew from being misunderstood as bandits. Her difficulty in lying at the beginning is an amusing twist and even the romantic tension with the esteemed Mrs. Ruane is light but intriguing.
The story is almost double in length but the extra space is put to good use, giving each scene the opportunity for the characters to react to it and make logical choices that advance the plot. Soon they’ve all teamed up against the bandits who have stolen the young lover of Mrs. Ruane and Captain Qi is reluctantly bound to use her vessel in assisting Mrs. Ruane’s personal mission. There are a few good twists and turns but otherwise this was a solid outing proving the series has got some strong life blood. Readers who stuck around after Issue 001 will feel their investment has paid off.
Issue 003 “Dr Morbury’s Cargo” is once again as much of an improvement over 002 as that one had been over 001. You can practically see Turnbull mature as a writer. This time that growth comes in the form of his story structure, which bounces around chronologically but never gets confusing. The story begins en media res, of course, as we see the characters already dealing with a crisis at hand and what a peculiar crisis it is. No one is in their right mind except Fanning who must use her formidable wits to get them out of trouble and avoid the sudden insanity which has befallen her shipmates.
The flashbacks reveal the arrival of Dr. Morbury and his colleagues who employ the Frozen Beauty to carry them and their exotic artifacts to Calcutta. The fact that they are explorers from Venus and Venus is just one of those places you can just go and explore and bring back alien artifacts is so perfectly and casually handled that it really speaks to the strength of the steampunk world building at play in this third story. This is where Turnbull’s larger Voidships universe of ideas finally reveals itself, as the Frozen Beauty series is just one of several taking place within the same shared fantasy world. A world full of a lot more than ice hauling hot air balloon freighters. As it relates to this story though, it brings with it the sense that anything can happen and you’re in the middle of something bigger than you realize.
Fanning gets her due this time around and dare I say carries the whole story. Not merely because we finally learn her secret, but because she systematically faces off with most of the crew, one or two at a time, and manages to narrowly save the day through some brave and daring choices. But sorry to those LGBT readers who would’ve been happy if her secret had simply been that she doesn’t fit within Victorian gender norms. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice it to say some unfortunate yet genre-inspired sci-fi experimentation has occurred in her past that just so happens to beautifully tie into the conflict of the present. Combined with some fun discoveries about Venus and the type of cargo Dr. Morbury has brought aboard the Frozen Beauty and this is by far the most steampunky of the stories and it’s definitely a good thing.
The chapters go back and forth reliably between the past and present, piecing the puzzle together for us with precision editing choices. Like cutting to commercial after every plot twist. As a quibble, one or two chapters did seem accidentally rearranged so that there were two in a row in the past and two in the present, but this had little effect on the story’s flow. If the present scenes are effective at ratcheting up the tension, the past scenes were equally effective at building the mystery, one clue at a time.
I really liked this last story and thought it pushed the envelope conceptually without losing its focus. The only shortcoming is that very few of the characters get more than cameos in this story, proving once again that the crew might be too large for its own good. The Frenchman Darras is played for laughs. Mrs. Cameron at least gets a full story arc, but besides Fanning the rest fade to the background in service to the larger story. The fact that so many of them, even Captain Qi, can go absent for most of the story and have no negative impact is only a problem if you base your expectations on other ships’ crews story structures (you know the ones where everyone gradually unifies into a motley family of sorts despite their disparate personality conflicts and its their teamwork that saves the day?). That comradery and casual familiarity must still be coming in future installments. If the strength of these last two entries is any indication, though, it’ll be worth checking out.
Conclusion: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Though the characters are all fully developed in concept, I can’t say I will miss more than one or two of them now that I’m through and I never got that chance to bond with them the way I did on shows like Firefly or even Star Trek. Nonetheless the Frozen Beauty series is a fun international airship adventure series that works better than it should. The stories are well polished and fun. Turnbull plays to his strengths despite baring his weaknesses and these three novellas will not soon be confused with many other steampunk stories you’ve read before.
Recommended reading: Sheesh, just punch in the guy’s name on Amazon. He’s got like three or four of these steampunk series each with multiple entries, set across all different periods of his Voidships universe. Each has a pulpy yet catchy aesthetic that looks consistent with his work here on Frozen Beauty.