Book Review: Owl Dance by David Lee Summers

Owl Dance is by far the most authentically “western” feeling steampunk I’ve read in a while. It’s a self-described Weird Western set in 1876 New Mexico, the first in a series dubbed the Clockwork Legion by David Lee Summers that also includes Lightning Wolves and The Brazen Shark, each of which is already available on Amazon.

A surprisingly realistic Southwest cultural flavor pervades Owl Dance, and I felt these environmental details truly set it apart from the steampunk pack. Little things like Spanish words and Mexican lingo might be easy enough for a well-researched writer to fake, but Summers knows when and how to use them like a local and it makes a big difference. Geography and settings are so fully realized and natural, you could visit a lot of these places in real life, if you want to. This level of historicity is often lacking in a lot of fiction but Summers really succeeds in transporting you to a distinct time and place in American history.

Owl Dance uses an episodic chapter structure which I think keeps the novel accessible in its opening chapters before the overarching saga exposes itself. Plot developments that might otherwise seem mildly predictable are saved by expediency and culminate in satisfying mini-climaxes within each chapter. When the larger saga takes over, though, it draws from characters and developments throughout these early chapters, resulting in a truly cohesive novel rather than just a random collection of shorts. A good balance.

Unfortunately, the characters and the writing are not so well balanced. Sheriff Ramon Morales is too straight a hero from the outset that it robs the drama when he inevitably rescues the foreigner and begins a romantic road trip while on the run. Likewise, I expected the Bahá’í  practicing Fatemeh Karimi, a curandera (healer) from Persia to be more, I don’t know, exotic? The most foreign thing about her is that she seems like a self-actualized, twenty-first century woman, not a Persian immigrant. She’s unnaturally modern and calmly enlightened even in the face of being burned at the stake. Yet despite these flat portrayals, Summers manages to imbue them with just enough life under the surface that I think some readers will still find them endearing.

If Summers is trying to be understated, though, he took it too far and forgot to leave any of that Southwest style or swagger in the writing itself. It may be well polished and clean, but it’s far too dry and robs the story of any gravitas. If you have a high tolerance for prosaic and unadorned Hemingway-esque style writing, you may quite enjoy going along for this ride. I fear many others won’t meet it half-way, though, and will instead feel underwhelmed with its lack of nuance or subtext.

Another element that may divide readers is an intergalactic villain called Legion who comes from a more traditional sci-fi genre and randomly plops in to cause trouble with a Russian invasion and some sort of humanitarian experiment. After setting up such a quaint and authentic environment to play in around the Southwest, this subplot never quite jives with the small-scale survival problems Morales and Fatemeh deal with throughout the first few chapters. When it later hijacks the rest of the novel, I felt the rug was pulled out from under me and I was thrown into a totally unrelated yet vaguely generic Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week. I would have much preferred the character drama of Morales and Fatemeh getting to know the nuances of each other’s culture while trying to make it in a rough and barely civilized American Southwest (still replete with clockwork animals, though, as those felt right at home).

Conclusion: 3 out of 5 stars.

A professionally polished story dragged down by flat writing and distracted by alien-instigated international conflict is kept afloat by a well-staged and authentic Southwest setting and two characters that manage to grow on you in spite of their two-dimensional portrayals.