(2013) Andrew P. Mayer, Prometheus (Pyr), £15.99, pbk, 390pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14696-2
Steampunk. I hear great things. I have seen some excellent writing by Catherine Valente, Christopher Priest and others that has me hooked and looking for more. I love the idea of an alternative reality (or two) where weird Victorian clockwork sci-fi is the norm. I am probably one of the only people who loved Wild, Wild West, the Will Smith film that bombed a few years ago in which a giant mechanical spider creates mayhem in the desert. And Anti-Ice. Stephen Baxter’s greatest. No arguments.
And superheroes. Love superheroes. I could name all the members of the X-Men before I was ten (new and old, team names and alter egos) and probably know more about the adventures of the Fantastic Four than is entirely healthy. So when I discovered a couple of chapters in to Power Under Pressure that this book was all about steampunk superheroes, I started to get quite excited.
Alas. Alas. Power Under Pressure didn’t come off at all. The archetype for this sort of thing is probably Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen where Dr Jekyll, the Invisible Man and other Victorian superbeings fight crime and do general super-heroics. Moore does this with deftness and humour, and shows that this type of mix can be very satisfying. But although they seem to be everywhere, superheroes are quite difficult to pull off. Because there are millions of them, the wonder that (I imagine) people had in 1937 when they first saw Superman or Batman, or the early 1960s when Spiderman and the Fantastic Four first showed up is difficult to sustain. And steampunk, too, requires a suspension of disbelief which totally engages you with the characters even though you know that their world is really quite silly.
And characterisation is what mainly lets this book down. That and characterisation’s twin, motivation. Whenever the answer to the question ‘why is he trying to destroy the world?’ is ‘because he’s evil’ or ‘because he’s mad’ or simply ‘because’ then the author has a problem convincing the reader that this is a story with any real depth. The good guy’s motivation seems to be that they want to save the world from Lord Eschaton’s plans to set off some unlikely weapon in 19th century New York, but we never get to see any of the ‘real’ world, so we never get to empathise with its fate. And why Eschaton’s followers stay with him when their boss is clearly insane and intent on killing them all is a mystery.
This could be set anywhere, anytime. Any normal humans soon don garish costumes and join the fight (even a Priest, in the end, decides he’d rather be a costumed crime fighter). And despite getting lots of back-story about previous superhero fights (this is the third book in a trilogy, and I guess the author wanted to catch up on every detail) I have no idea what lies behind any of the costumes and masks.
On the plus side the action whips along nicely and there are some interesting plot twists. And the good guys don’t entirely win, which is very satisfying. The basic plot is that in the last book the good guys, the Paragons, got routed by the bad guys, led by the evil Lord Estragon, who has invented (or stolen) something called ‘fortified smoke’, which either kills people or makes them superpowered. He thinks if he can change everyone in New York in this way, then he’ll have an army of super powered acolytes, and the world will be a better place. But he needs the beating heart of a mechanical man to make his scheme work, and the good guys regroup with new heroes as the Society of Steam and fight it out for the future of the world. You can guess the rest.
So, lessons learned. Never start a trilogy on book three. Never get excited about Victorian superheroes unless they’re written by Alan Moore. And never expect that just because a book is from a major publisher and it features a giant robot on the (very excellent) cover that the contents will make any sense. I guess that’s superhero steampunk for you.
See Ian's review of The Society of Steam Book 1: The Falling Machine and
The Society of Steam Book Two – Hearts of Smoke and Steam.
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