(2013) Ari Marmell, Pyr, £10.99 / US$18 / Can$19, trdpbk, 294pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14773-0
I have never actually played the RPG (role playing game) Iron Kingdoms Chronicles: In Thunder Forged is based on, so it took me a while to get up to speed with the settings and the story's environment. That being said, Iron Kingdoms Chronicles: In Thunder Forged has a very engaging background setting that even at times distracted me from the narrative. It has some great ideas: the combination of steam punk technology combined with magic and sheer ingenuity of it all. The opening scenes grabbed me from the start. One of the characters has a mission of infiltration involving costume changes, and uses of different types of costume to blend into the background. As for the setting itself, imagine the dawn of an industrial age in a civilization with a longstanding, established social structure and dress codes that contrast with the new, steam-powered technology.
It is also refreshing having female leads in a book such as this and having them play central roles. There are a great many books I have read where female characters are relegated to being the love interest or there as window dressing, none of which apply to this novel. In this novel, they have plot-development roles and battles to fight. The reactions of characters to backgrounds are another aspect that works well – it provides depth and an idea of the motivations of the characters in question. This is done particularly well with Katherine Laddermore who may have the looks and heritage of a member of the nobility but would rather be in the thick of the action than exchanging pleasantries. Dignity - AKA Garland - is also a truly engaging protagonist with a real air of strategy. The opening section, where she has to infiltrate a specific fortified structure in a fortified city, involves genuine ingenuity and inventiveness: so it is not all grit, with a dash of humour here and there. The espionage element of this book is great fun, too – everyone has a role to play in it and their own ways of going about their individual missions.
There are some brilliant ideas which steampunk fans are sure to revel. A personal favourite of mine was the use of Warjacks: steam-powered robots used in battle. While they could have just been a means to an end they too have some character; they all have nicknames and distinctive fighting styles. The views of their fellow soldiers about them, and the camaraderie, is an effective touch that makes the reader actually care about their fates. Another element used is magic, and the way it is used effectively by a gun mage and with reason is not just for show or some kind of casual, thrown in fantasy trope. Here I did feel that the gun mage character needed a little more depth and background, especially as the character was central to a pivotal point to ensuring the magic element had a narrative. The subject matter is potentially dark, but the humour, the colourful characters and the events that befall them, keeps the story flowing: the author ensures that we care about what happens to these characters, and each of them certainly has a defined role to play within the story.
I did find the plot a little hard to follow in parts as I am not at all familiar with the Iron Kingdoms Chronicles' universe: it made remembering who was on which side, and which race was which, quite a challenge. Also I was not very taken by the use of italics – the writing style is strong enough not to need that kind of emphasis and it became distracting after a while. On the other hand, I enjoyed following what specific fates of the characters, which is a testament to how well drawn are the characters. As the main protagonists do not meet until a fair way into the story, it does mean the reader has time to get to know them, their backgrounds, and their respective perceptions on events are engaging.
Ironically, whilst reading this book, I found myself trying out role-playing games and this book was what very much makes me want to take the plunge. The novel sets up the feel of the game's universe, and I sense that this novel is a good starting point for anyone wanting to give the games a try. As said, not being familiar with the universe, I found it a little disorientating trying to work out which race was which. Nonetheless, the book is a fun steampunk novel that serves the genre well – maybe not crystal clear in parts and perhaps in need of some exposition for readers unfamiliar with the game, but it is an entertaining and appealing read for those into steampunk.
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