Book Review: Esper Files by Egan Brass

Esper Files mixes the charm of your usual Victorian steampunk setting with the spectacle of a superhero popcorn flick and keeps the action pistons pumping throughout this first novel by Egan Brass.

Nathan and James are Espers with superpowers, feared and hated by the public at large, and when they aren’t bickering with one another like step-brothers, they’re getting into your usual fisticuffs around town with their less reputable counterparts and rescuing pubescent children who are only beginning to understand the changes they’re going through. Along with the requisite evil henchmen, they confront a villain named simply the Baron, a former associate of their enigmatic mentor known only as the Professor who runs an Institute for Espers to learn to control their powers. If this is starting to sound familiar, you aren’t the only one thinking this is just another X-Men knockoff set in set in a vaguely steampunk Victorian England. The only part that didn’t feel X-Men to me was the little girl they rescue after her unexpected expression of powers turns the entire scene into a block of ice, threatening to kill everyone. That’s straight out of Disney’s Frozen. Continue reading “Book Review: Esper Files by Egan Brass” »

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. Continue reading “Book Review: Owl Dance by David Lee Summers” »

Book Review: Cerulean Rust by William J Jackson

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.

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Book Review: Frozen Beauty Series by Steve Turnbull

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, 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.Frozen Beauty

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.

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Book Review: The Machine by E.C. Jarvis

Opening with a curmudgeonly engineer, “Cid” adjusting his goggles, moving quickly to the bouncing blond curls of our naive young heroine, “Larissa”, and leading swiftly into the explosion of a mysteriously ominous machine, E.C. Jarvis’ steampunk powered novel, The Machine, kicks off with a literal bang and rollicks along at a near unrelenting pace. We are whisked from Larissa’s fairly mundane existence as a humble clerk at a clothing emporium, her modest apartment where we meet her best friend and confidante, “Imago” her cat, to a flight for her life, and a desperate mission to save the life of a man she might be in love with…delicate details, twists on the all-too-common tropes, are what make The Machine such a pure pleasure to read, that draw us in to discover the true nature of Larissa’s romantic entanglements, as well as to understand the evil machinations, of not only our evident villains, the sadistic “Dr. Orother”, his giant henchman, “Hans” or even the seductive, yet seemingly heartless female assassin, “Serenia”, but later even deeper and more insidious implications of intrigue on a grander scale.

E.C Jarvis paints in vivid hues a world of corsets, cogs, pirates and airships, with a gently restrained romanticism, and even a few heated scenes of sexual passion. She balances these elements skillfully with raw action and harrowing suspense, tempering it all with a touch of playful humor. She is a master at tension and release. I found myself reveling in the beautifully rich descriptions of a somehow familiar yet delightfully exotic future/past, where clerics in robes guard temples to the gods, ladies of the evening laugh raucously from the balconies of a city tavern where denizens of the night brandish knives and pistols under their waistcoats.

Our author warns, “This is a work of adult Steampunk Fantasy. Possible triggers are present within the book including…sex, murder, torture and violence.” I was surprised only once at how far into the abyss she takes us. Yet even when I found myself wince a bit, Ms. Jarvis handles her re-balancing act deftly and with a renewed sense of purpose and worldly wisdom gained by our heroine.

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Book Review: Beyond the Rails II: Soldier of the Crown by Jack Tyler

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.

Beyond the Rails II

Find it on Amazon.

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.

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Book Review: The Vitruvian Heir

The Vitruvian Heir by L.S. Kilroy is a tantalizing steampunk dystopian novel in which a repressive government has taken control of the United States and reverted it back to Edwardian and Victorian sensibilities. Religious extremism and Imperialistic rule darken what might otherwise have resembled a fairy-tale coming of age story. Our young heroine Lore must choose from the few options allowed to her if she hopes to survive in this harsh world and save any of her friends.

Vitruvian cover

Check it out here on Amazon

The production value is very solid and professional and the few snippets of silhouetted art (both in the cover and the section breaks) set a nice tone of intrigue with a hint of guile.  Kilroy is no slouch in the editing department either, having layered the novel with complex emotional subtext and poignant social implications that weave in and out of the narrative deftly. But for all that, her heroine, Lorelei Fetherston, stands confidently at the forefront, her thoughtful but resilient nature so clearly in focus that it’s hard to believe the novel wasn’t written in first person.

Not unlike her fairy-tale forebears, Lore must acquiesce to her overbearing parents and the social norms under which she is trapped. Namely, she is betrothed to Gideon, the wrong one of her two childhood best friends (Fallon whom she loves is heir to the Empire) and must settle for veiled flirtations and unspoken feelings. Her grandmother leaves her a series of MacGuffins to follow which puts her in touch with an old inventor who helps Lore peel back the layers of propaganda concealing the true history of Vitruvia and its sexist oppression. It’s quaint but reads better than it should due to strong adolescent characterization. It teeters on melodrama but Lore’s reactionism and moods felt warranted by her age.

#@&! gets real though at graduation when Lore and her wayward friend Sawyer, along with the whole assembly are interrupted by the impromptu execution of a pair of beloved schoolteachers caught in an illicit (read: lesbian) relationship, for which no one can protest for fear of retribution. When Lore tries to dissuade Sawyer from her secret trysts with a clergyman, it’s made clear that her punishment might also include genital mutilation. More classical scenes like ditching the maid to accommodate a secret rendezvous with Fallon carry an extra layer of danger as a result. If these sorts of horrors are already being set up, there’s no way to predict the kind of consequences waiting behind any given plot twist.

Especially considering the vague yet omnipresent yoctosteam particles that could at any moment catch them breaking decorum. Yocto spies could be anywhere. On the other hand, like fairy-tale magic, Kilroy uses them for almost anything, including invisibility (“innocuous concealment”), clockwork animals to pull carriages, or even the little cartoon squirrels that hover around Lore’s head and bicker with her. They’re more fantasy than sci-fi, and they blur the lines between the trite Young Adult conventions Kilroy tries so hard to stay within and the adult sexist themes she secretly wants to dig into.

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Book Review: X-Troop by Clay Davis

X-Troop by Clay Davis is a mostly western tale following an elite force assembled to fight the various threats faced by America in the late eighteen hundreds. It’s a short read, about 155 pages, (I think a little over 30,000 words) making it more of a novella.

Xtroop cover

You can find it on Amazon here.

X-Troop resembles a relatively well-polished but underdeveloped attempt at Ocean’s Eleven meets Magnificent Seven. Most of the novel amounts to little more than what you would find in the outline of a “How-To” guide for writing genre fiction, stacking clichés on top of stereotypes and predictable plot points.

The thrust of the story is that Col. Orsen Ritter has been recruited by President Grant and General Sheridan to form a team of special secret troopers to go after America’s threats. The threats are vague and non-specific and so is the reason why this or any team is appropriate to solve them. Custer’s massacre is regularly mentioned as a catalyst for forming the team, but the team does nothing to follow up on that historical event and instead spends their time arbitrarily addressing an outlaw gang whose only real threat is some gold shipment robberies that will somehow cripple the US economy.

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Book Review: An Unsubstantiated Chamber

An Unsubstantiated Chamber by William J Jackson is a dark steampunk murder mystery set in Railroad City, with a few bleak undertones of the superhero genre to set it apart from the fray. The first in a series, it’s a pretty solid debut from another self-published author and also includes a pair of short stories at the end for bonus material.

Chamber cover

Find it on Amazon here.

Jackson succeeds early on in setting a very dark and dystopian tone for his fictitious Rail city in 1880’s Missouri and I couldn’t help picturing a foggy nineteenth century London (I suppose in steampunk that’s a compliment). His tale is bleak and somber and told with deep regret by our narrator, Miss Aretha Tyne Astin, a hunter of paranormals or “Pins” who is herself a paranormal in league with a Gestapo-like military regime. Using a memoir format (at times, almost confessional) Astin guides us through the series of events that not only surround the Chamber Murders case, but her own personal shift in allegiance.

This retrospective narration adequately sets up the plot but I couldn’t help finding the younger version of Astin far more compelling than the older, wiser narrator. Young Astin boasts in her Welsh/Mexican breeding, conceitedly itemizes the intricacies of her outfits, and waxes philosophical about “the hunt” which has become like an addiction to her, obscuring her awareness of the atrocities in which she participates. Old Astin is exposition heavy and a bit of a downer. Jackson missed a golden opportunity not letting the younger Astin’s voice dominate more of the narration, especially the opening of the story. With her proud, vane and politically myopic point of pulled to the foreground, the opening would’ve been far more gripping, while the droll, self-reflective and morally realigned character she becomes could have faded in a little later in the narrative, once we’re safely hooked on the story. I get what he was going for in the Prologue, but it killed a lot of momentum before Astin’s snark could lure me back in and save the story.

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Book Review: Beyond the Rails

Beyond the Rails, written by Jack Tyler is the unique kind of steampunk you secretly hope for when you open the cover. A series of stories following the crew of the airship Kestrel and their travels through the adventurous African interior.

BeyondRails cover

You can find it here on Amazon

Or check out his website where he offers the first story, free.

By choosing Africa, Tyler single handedly adds mystery, romance and excitement to a genre so often stuck in the same familiar foggy London alleys or dusty American frontier. Part of this owes itself to Tyler’s seeming familiarity with the dark continent. He quotes Swahili comfortably (though never distractingly) and rattles off geographical references like a pro. I don’t know his life history but if he hasn’t drawn knowledgeably from personal experience, then he’s succeeded in translating his immense research to the page expertly.

The writing style is rather pedestrian, and for a debut author, I’d go so far as to call it safe. For the most part though, I’d call that a good thing, as it never gets in the way of the story. What he lacks in flourish he makes up for with content, leaning back on his airships and foreign lands to keep things exciting. It works. A few typos here and there in my version expose the lack of thorough professional editing, but this was a minor concern (inevitable in most self-publishing). Truthfully, he’s put together a very nice package.

Tyler divides the book appropriately into episodes, each reading like a short story contributing to a larger saga. In truth, it felt like TV episodes, week to week as we get to know the cast and piece them into a cohesive season. The last three even connect directly by way of, “to be continued,” which works surprisingly well at building suspense even though the story simply continues on the next page like any other chapter.

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