Fiction Reviews

The Steam Mole

(2012) Dave Freer, Pyr, £16.95 / US$16.95, hrdbk, 303pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14692-4


This is a story for young adults and the cover describes it as 'a high-stakes steampunk adventure' and, whilst I would agree with the steam, I would not add the punk. It is set in a coal-powered alternative history, in the year 1953, and follows directly on from Cuttlefish.

For those that have read Cuttlefish I can easily sum up The Steam Mole by saying it is more of the same. If you enjoyed the first book I would expect you to enjoy this one (and vice versa).

For those new to these books, the history of the divergence of the Cuttlefish' timeline from our own is omitted from the story though for the curious the author has thoughtfully explained this and other things in appendices at the end of the book.

To give you some background on the story so far, the Haber-Bosch method for the artificial synthesis of ammonia was never invented and therefore there is no industrial creation of nitrates, thus limiting the production of both fertilisers and explosives. The British Empire controlled much of the world’s natural nitrates and used this control with great effect, along with its domination of the world’s supplies of coal. When war started with the Kaiser, Germany soon ran out of explosives and the 1914-15 war was soon over, resulting in Germany coming very much under the control of Britain and the establishment of the Windsor-Schaumburg-Lippe monarchy. Due to their domination, the British Empire effectively held back the development of petroleum and there is no petrochemical industry as we would know it.

The resultant over-abundant use of coal had a most detrimental effect; it lead to vast amounts of particulate soot in the atmosphere and thus to significant atmospheric warming and so to the Big Melt. Not only did all the ice melt but also vast bubbles of methane unfroze from the permafrost and this lead to even more warming and many more atmospheric changes. There were years of catastrophic storms which, along with the flooding of coastal areas, caused damage and havoc around the world and resulted in the fall of many governments. Even the British Government fell, the Empire being left in the hands of the monarchy. By the time the atmosphere stabilised, the world was warmer, very much warmer in some places, major cities had been drowned or otherwise fallen, and Britain was the dominant power in the world - and determined to stay so!

Whilst Ernest, the current king, is pretty useless, Duke Malcolm, his younger brother, is responsible for the power behind the throne. The Duke runs the military and has spies and agents everywhere. He realises that if Britain is to continue to run the world then there is no room for sentiment; it will require an iron fist. This makes the Duke not so much the villain of the piece but very much the determined enemy.

In Cuttlefish we were introduced to Dr. Mary Calland, who had a practical theory for the artificial production of ammonia. Duke Malcolm wanted this knowledge for himself (i.e. for the continuing might of Britain), or at the very least to ensure that nobody else (such as rebel colonies or foreign powers) got their hands on it. And so we had the story of her escape from Britain to the rebel Republic of Westralia (the extremely hot, dry, and forbidding western part of Australia that Britain had deserted after the Big Melt). Her journey was undertaken in the Cuttlefish, a coal-powered submarine, and was told mostly from the perspectives of her fourteen-year old daughter Clara and of Tim Barnabus, a young crewman. At the end of Cuttlefish, having safely arrived, it seemed their story was over. I did, though, wonder if they would have further adventures…

The Steam Mole opens only a few days later. Her encounters with the British Navy has left the Cuttlefish badly damaged and she is in need of many repairs; as these will take some months to achieve the crew, who have not been paid for some time, have immediately disbanded and sought temporary employment elsewhere (Westralia is no place for those that have neither work nor money) until such time as they can return to sea. Tim Barnabus has joined the ‘railway’ and is on the crew of a steam mole, a device which drills along and through the ground and allows them to build a trenched and covered railway system to the mines and to other towns (the covering being essential protection from the sun). However, things are not going well for Tim and he has been bullied and hounded off the steam mole and left to fend for himself in the desert (i.e. left to die). Fortunately he is found by a friendly aborigine, but survival and returning to his friends are going to be far from easy - but Tim is becoming a very determined young man.

Meanwhile, Duke Malcolm has not been idle and various plans for dealing with the rebels in Westralia are nearing fruition. He also has plans for silencing Dr. Calland before her theories can be turned into practical realities and one of his agents succeeds in poisoning her. He has also arranged to have Jack Calland, rebel and political prisoner, and father to Clara, transferred to Australia. The Duke’s agent passes a note to Clara from her father, telling her that he is in a prison over on the east coast and, if he is to survive, she must do as the agent says. However, plans go astray and, believing her mother is dying or even dead, and finding that her friends from the Cuttlefish are temporarily scattered, Clara runs away and sets off in search of Tim Barnabus. This takes her east and into the unbearable and deadly heat of central Australia. When she discovers what has happened to Tim and that he is lost out there in the desert, she steals a small steam mole and sets off in search of her friend. And Clara is already a very determined young lady!

Thinking that Jack Calland is of no further use, the prison commandant has him sent westward to work on the secret railway which the British are building to move their troops closer for an invasion of Westralia. Being experienced and resourceful, Jack organises a breakout and, along with Lampy, a young aborigine, escapes into the desert. Chased by the Duke’s men, they head westwards, being kept alive by Lampy’s knowledge and Jack’s cunning. And it takes a lot to stop Jack Calland when he is determined (you see where young Clara gets it from).

To add to this mix, Mary Calland recovers her health and, discovering that her daughter is missing and why, summons the Westralian authorities and the crew of the Cuttlefish to her aid, and sets off in search of Clara and Tim. Like her husband, Mary is very determined (you see where young Clara gets the rest of it from).

And so there is lots of action, with the various members of the cast scattered across the outback, and all having to face their own survival problems in their own ways. As well as the story being told from the perspectives of Clara and Tim (as in Cuttlefish), the narrative has been nicely expanded by having Mary and Jack also ‘telling’ major parts of the story. In addition, Linda Darlington, the daughter of the Westralian government official who has been playing host to the Callands since their arrival, becomes a new friend for Clara and she too soon gets involved in the adventure. Linda proves herself (somewhat to her own surprise) to be a plucky lass and we see her growing from a mere schoolgirl to someone who, in the fullness of time, will be going somewhere. Not to be outdone, young Lampy also gets his chance to shine.

Cuttlefish worked well being centred mostly on Clara and Tim, but handing over major parts of this new story to the additional characters has widened the story telling and this is no bad thing. It has allowed for more and different adventures and extended the overall story into new areas. The whole has been nicely tied together and the characters’ individual timelines neatly resolved. To tell you what happens once they are all out in the desert would, of course, be giving the game away; suffice it say that it is an adventure story which hangs together and the outcomes make sense. I cannot help but feel that we have not reached the end of their adventures; that we will be seeing more of the Callands and their friends, and that Duke Malcolm’s domination of the world is getting shakier.

As with Cuttlefish, I found The Steam Mole to be well written. It has a good pace, flows nicely, and my interest was maintained throughout. Given its target audience, I cannot say I found it to be demanding – but it was certainly an enjoyable read.

Peter Tyers

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