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.