(2011) Andrew P. Mayer, Pyr, £14.99, pbk, 320pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14375-6
Ah, should you ever judge a book by its cover? Well. I have to admit that cover illustrations have influenced me greatly over the years in whether or not I bought a book or not, particularly if its one by an unknown writer. So the problem with the cover of The Society of Steam Book 1: The Falling Machine is the woman in the foreground, who looks slightly cartoonish, “Manga-ish”, with a big gun in her two hands, then there is the larger, almost lurking, robot behind her, looking as if it has escaped straight out of Will Smith’s I Robot film, even though he looks a bit more clockworky and tooled up. No subtlety in putting forward the steampunk credentials of this book here, even if there is a slightly out-of-place looking pirate, complete with big grin and eye patch and the end of a harpoon instead of a hook on one hand, and a strange looking key in his other (well, only) hand. But if you can get past the cover, then what of the contents inside?
Well, we are in New York in the l880s, a society where woman do not have the vote, and can only dream of becoming costumed adventurers, rather like the guys who make up the Society of Paragons, who have used the discovery of “fortified steam” to turn themselves into supermen. (In fact, there’s an illustration at the start of the book of someone who looks like a cross between Uncle Sam, one of the Watchmen, and Captain America.). Such are the dreams of Sarah Stanton, daughter of one of the Paragons known as “The Industrialist” who finds herself one day as part of a small group inspecting the Brooklyn Bridge when they are attacked, resulting in the death Sir Dennis Darby, one of the society’s founding members, while another Paragon is injured, and the attacker driven off thanks to the intervention of a mechanical man – an automaton – called Tom who gets damaged in the process. Therefore there is a murderer to be captured and a mystery to be solved. Can Sarah do it? Well, she can with the help of the Tom, but he has been locked away in some premises that belonged to Darby, chained to a table, unable to repair himself. This is strange, and even stranger things happen when the rest of Paragons ignore the contents of Darby’s will. Sarah has to start digging to solve these mysteries, not an easy task for a woman at the end of the 19th century and her station in society, but she has picked up some unusual skills herself as she has been left to her own devices by her father who has virtually ignored her since the death of her mother – a death that Sarah “caused” by setting some events in motion that revealed her father’s secret identity. Of course, given that this is the start of a series there are sub-plots galore, some of them unresolved and nicely ticking over for subsequent books, and also, of course, this is no straightforward mystery, with Sarah having to pick away at the civilised veneer of New York City, and expose the rotten core underneath.
While well written and fast-moving and reasonably original, it may just be me, but I am getting a bit tired and jaded about the whole steampunk thing – the corseted, weapon wielding heroines, the robots, the Victorian setting, the use of steam-powered technology to create super-humans, etc, etc. In young adult fiction we’ve had vampires, werewolves, a current clutch (or maybe that should be flock) of angels. What next? Is steampunk just another passing fad, or is it going to be around for years to come? Whatever the answer, PYR are clearly among the leaders in publishing this steampunk subgenre, which will be swelled slightly by the next book in the series: The Society of Steam Book 2: Hearts of Smoke and Steam with a cover that comes across like a bad comic book, a cross between Jack Kirby’s Darkseid glowering at the Teen Titans. I think I will resist the lure of that cover, and pass on reading book two, but feel free to jump in without me.
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