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.