Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: A Long Forgotten Genre Comes to Life in Monk's 'Dead Iron: The Age of Steam'

One of the most underplayed genres in sci-fi/fantasy in my opinion is the Steampunk genre. There are, however, sub-genres of Steam Punk; Victorian and Wild West for example. I prefer the latter, probably because in my house growing up I was raised with movies like The Magnificent Seven and El Dorado. Very rarely can genres be mixed without having the final product be a complete mess, leaving you feeling cheated.   However, I’m happy to say, that isn’t always the case. Dead Iron: The Age of Steam by Devon Monk is a unique novel that mixes Steampunk, Wild West, Fantasy and Horror into a story with outlandish villains, wild devices, and supporting characters that made me excited to finally have a fun and thrilling Steampunk adventure.

We open in the small town of Hallelujah, Oregon where drifter and bounty hunter Cedar Hunt has secluded himself reeling from the guilt of his brother’s death, and the curse he bares every full moon. In this town Mr. Shard LeFel has brought in a crew of steam powered “matics” building a railroad that is sure to make Hallelujah the center of business for Oregon. However, people have started to disappear from the small town of Hallelujah; Jeb Lindson, husband to the local Witch Mae, and the boy Elbert Gregor, son of the town blacksmith. Cedar is recruited by Mr. Gregor to find his boy, dead or alive. Slowly with the help of Mae, the drunken miners the Madder brothers, and the deviser prodigy Rose, Cedar uncovers what darkness the railroad has brought to their town, and that the missing people in Hallelujah are the least of their problems. Together they discover that there are worse things than cursed bounty hunters and witches; boogeymen are real, and very dangerous.

The world that we step in with this novel is a world that is similar but very different than our own history. It is post Civil War and the devisers (inventors of sorts) that flourished after the war have brought about “The Age of Steam”. These devisers have created “matics” used to build and assist people with their everyday jobs, and Airships used to carry people from one end of the country to the other, all powered by steam. Iron and steam are the only things of true worth, unless you have magic on your side. Despite the technological advancements in this world, greed and despair grip every character that graces the pages. Many are torn between their personal vendettas or desires and the societal constraints that bind them to the dull lives they are currently living. The bleak living conditions of the characters present a dark and real vision of what the west was in that time. It was a kill or be killed time in American history, and in this novel technology seems to have only made things worse. The author does a fantastic job building a world that is just slightly different than our own American history of that time. It felt believable considering the amount of magic, steam, iron, and curses that were present. It felt like a true frontier town where people shot first and asked questions later.

Even though the world is a large part of the experience, the true joy of this novel came from the characters. Cedar is highly educated and has suffered more loss than one man rightly should, and now he is cursed and bound to the full moon. Mae is a distraught woman desperately seeking vengeance for her lost husband, using spells and bullets to hunt down whatever took the love of her life away. The Madders are the drunken bunch of miners who live in the mountains and only come down to drink and cause trouble, but there is a power in them that the town’s people respect and fear. Rose is the twenty-something daughter of the local general store owners who secretly devises small “matics” in her spare time, despite the wish of her family to settle down and marry like a woman should. The story follows these characters, swapping point of view nearly every chapter, pacing each characters movements with each other’s until their inevitable crossing that finds them fighting for one common goal. I personally wasn’t thrilled with Cedar Hunt as the protagonist until about halfway through the book. He is a bit too brooding for me until things he’s believed in for the better part of the book get turned upside down. In my opinion Rose is the shining star of the novel. She is an adopted girl who is mysterious and cunning with a sharp tongue. Every chapter she was in was one to remember either from her own actions, vague revelations about her past (which are still mostly unknown by the end), or just a few choice words she exchanges with other characters. 

The villains in this story were just as detailed as the heroes. The Strange are the demonic creatures that are plaguing the world with their evil. They have the power to shapeshift, teleport, devise living, breathing creatures out of wood and blood, and kill with ease and stealth. There are several Strange that are presented throughout the novel, their leader being the secretive and extravagant Shard LeFel who was banished from his homeland. LeFel pulls the strings behind a larger picture that no one is truly aware of. He manipulates the people of the town into doing his bidding with his silver tongue and glamorous looks. The real danger though, lies with his servant, Mr. Shunt. Shunt is one of the most evil creatures I’ve had the experience of knowing. He is a deviser in his own right, but not from iron and steam (even though he does use them), his media of choice is bone, blood, flesh, and gears. Several times I found myself disturbed and disgusted by his actions in the novel, making him a great and dangerous obstacle for the rag-tag band of heroes.

Although I felt that the story was very well written and I enjoyed most of the characters, I felt that at times the pacing was off. There were sections of the book that seem to fly by so quickly with the action or the gripping dialogue that I thought I was going to fly through the book in one sitting. That was quickly marred by a couple of slow points in the story where I felt that the author was trying too hard to work romance or sentiment into a story that I personally didn’t feel was needed considering the world and situation that the characters found themselves in. Thankfully these slow points were ended before they became too grating and were replaced by more character development, or further revelations in the overall story. 

The above setback aside, the story of devisers, steam, iron, and evil made for a fun and enjoyable read. There were a couple of “twists” that I saw coming, but were usually followed by something a bit more unpredictable. I appreciated this because it kept me reading in anticipation of what was going to happen next. The final climax was as thrilling and action oriented as anything I have read recently. I honestly wasn’t sure who was going to live and who was going to die up until the final heart wrenching scene. The book does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, and after a bit of research I discovered that Devon Monk is coming out with a sequel titled Tin Swift: The Age of Steam. I’m truly looking forward to reading more about this world and the characters that fill it. The coming adventure is no doubt going to be bigger, darker, and have more ramifications on the world. 

Devon Monk’s Dead Iron: The Age of Steam is a great novel for anyone who enjoys horror, fantasy, Steampunk, or well written characters. This book was a random book I picked up at Borders as it was closing, and I’m glad to have been intrigued by the cover and the synopsis enough to buy it. Although not a perfect product, I am able to overlook the minor problems and just enjoy the hell out of what was delivered in this fascinating world. This novel reignited my interest and fascination with Wild West Steampunk, and I eagerly look forward to the next installment. This book was a reminder that America was truly built on blood, sweat, and gears.


By Justin Hopper

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