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: 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: 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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