There’s a surprising readability to be found in this wish fulfillment fantasy for any teen girl reader, or any reader really, who might vicariously want to be a teen a girl. Who is Queen. And wields Excalibur. And talks to unicorns sometimes. You probably already know if you’re capable of enjoying this type of classical Victorian steampunk romance fantasy or not. But just for the sake of a fair review, let’s break it down anyway.
Grand Tour is actually Book II in this series by Brandt available on Amazon (Book III is on the way), but I didn’t feel restrained in any way by missing Book I. Everything you might need to know is included within the text. The famous teen Queen Victoria—you know, from the Victorian era—was killed last time and replaced by… another teen queen, this time named Juliette. I don’t understand the merit of replacing one teen queen with another except to avoid all the historical research, but as far as I can tell Juliette is no different than how I’ve seen Victoria portrayed in any number of adaptations dealing with her youthful monarchy. Nonetheless, Juliette is descended from King Arthur so that’s why she carries Excalibur everywhere with her and occasionally talks to it. But that’s all backstory. What’s young Juliette up to this time? Under the guise of husband-hunting, she boards her airship on a tour across Europe to investigate the New World Order (a secret society that wants to rule England or Europe or something which may or may not be run by [SPOILER REDACTED]), but things go horribly wrong right from their first stop in France. This is our premise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.