Fiction Review: The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire, Book One)

BY CLAY AND SUSAN GRIFFITH
Publisher: Pyr
Reviewed by Anna Burwell

VampireEmpire_FinalCover(lores)As the final decades of the 19th Century wound down, a plague of mythical proportions struck the Northern Hemisphere. Vampires rose up from the cool, dark places of the earth, slaughtered every human in their wake, and plunged the entire world into chaos (and an inevitable dystopia, of course). Two hundred years later, the descendants of the northern refugees have created new empires around the equatorial regions and the Southern Hemisphere. The warmth, antithesis to the vampires, keeps them in relative safety. Enter Princess Adele of the Equatorian Empire, touring the fringes of human territory. This is, of course, an effort to stall an arranged marriage with the boorish American, Senator Clark, as her father’s empire stands on the brink of war and she loathes such a distraction. A sudden vampire attack separates her from her brother and retinue, and plunges her into vampire territory and the company of the enigmatic, vampire-slaying folk hero known only as ‘Greyfriar. ‘ As her sword-wielding compatriot leads her far north into the heart of what was once the British Empire, two questions remain: Can she keep her father from plunging their empire into a catastrophic war, and—of course—can she escape a poorly-matched marriage to a blinkered warmonger, intent on stealing her own crown and inheritance?

For once, the synopsis on the jacket reveals to the reader precisely what they will find inside. What it doesn’t prepare the prospective audience for is the woeful predictability of the story. Even one of the characters’ big reveal is ruined almost as soon as they are introduced thanks to particularly ham-handed foreshadowing. It seems the pulpy nature of the story makes it formulaic in a very painful way. And, indeed, The Greyfriar is one of the pulpiest books I’ve ever read. While the authors make a valiant attempt to both combat this, as well as spice up the prose (which often waxes purple), it lacks a certain finesse. Puns are scattered throughout the narrative, but they barely distract a reader from the awkward pulpiness. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that, despite being a refugee group in this world, Europeans still seem to own everything. The same can be said of Americans, as well. Some very heavy-handed attempts at social commentary seem to be present, but the characters involved aren’t written well enough to make them a driving point in the story (in fact, it makes said characters incredibly annoying). However, the authors are to be commended in their own way.

There are some readers who find their stomachs turned by the very mention of a vampire novel (myself included). Very few authors can write one and come out of that mess seeming even halfway competent. The Greyfriar is a different story. The vampires, thankfully, are actually terrifying in their own world. For the most part, the vampire characters aren’t overly romanticized—thankfully. They are meant to be a nearly-insurmountable obstacle, and the Griffiths most definitely present them as such.

Furthermore, while the usual vomit-inducing romance is still there, it is downplayed. The focus remains on character and action instead. There is even enough momentum in these action scenes to catch and throw a reader through a fourth of the book at a time. Adding to the narrative pace, a heroine who stands her ground (the usual damsel in distress and tower-rescue scenes aside) without worrying about her clothes (even though she worries about her love interest) every waking moment was a breath of fresh air—especially in a genre prone to such juvenile stereotypes. On the subject of genre, the first installment of this series seems to accomplish something most steampunk books do not: steampunk as an atmosphere rather than a contrivance. Not only does it work well with the somewhat post-apocalyptic world, the genre elements are in the background where they belong, rather than being used as a blunt object with which to bludgeon the reader senseless.

With all that in mind, while The Greyfriar is squarely in the ‘mediocre’ range, it makes an enjoyable fluff read for anyone who likes a bit of pulp with their supernatural fiction. Well, if you can ignore the confusing cultural structure of the Equatorian Empire, that is.

ART: Return to Steam City

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Return to Steam City by Simon Buckroyd by *Binoched on deviantART.

ART: VOODOO by Terry Dodson

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VOODOO NYCC 2012 by *TerryDodson on deviantART.

ART: Victorian Lara Croft

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Victorian Lara Croft ” by *Esaikha on deviantART.

Fiction Review: The Diamond Thief

BY SHARON GOSLING
Publisher: Curious Fox
Reviewed by Belle Cooper

108dbb_b302bce4124fcc0a5b0f5c6a78185bb5We’re introduced to our protagonist, Rémy Brunel, at the top of a trapeze performance for Le Cirque de la Lune, and within a few pages we seem to know all we need to know about her: she’s a sixteen-year-old orphan, slight of build, and a tremendous trapeze artist and master jewel thief. She is, in other words, YA romance gold. Her co-star, Thaddeus Rec, is similarly constructed: upright and moral despite being raised by thieves, he’s used his strict code of ethics and fascination with steam-era advanced science to become the youngest detective at Scotland Yard. Oh, and did I mention his eyes are two different colors?

I must admit, I took my first steps into Sharon Gosling’s Victorian London with trepidation. The prose, light and simple, at first appears childish, but I reminded myself that were I still fourteen instead of in my thirties, I would be all over Rémy and Thaddeus (well, most certainly R&eactue;my, I was never much one for the upright and moral dashing gentleman). Thus reassured and in the proper frame of mind, I straightened my reviewer’s skirts and strode forward into the world of The Diamond Thief with due enthusiasm.

I was not disappointed.

It’s not a perfect book. A few details don’t quite pan out; the text towards the end states, for instance, that Rémy and Thaddeus have known each other perhaps a week, while at my count it can be no more than two days. It also takes quite awhile to get to the real juice of the story, the first half moving rather slowly as the pieces are carefully placed. We meet Thaddeus’ scientist mentor, known simply as “the Professor”; his street-urchin sidekick J; and a properly sinister (and properly landed, this is Victorian London we’re talking about) villain. There’s a seemingly successful jewel heist and mistaken accusations thrown about, and even a dog chase, all simply to force dear Rémy and Thaddeus together into the sewers beneath London, where the fun can really begin. What plods in the set-up becomes a proper thrill ride in the execution, full of truly mad science, a handy dose of mysticism, an inherited curse, declarations of love, and a climax straight out of Indiana Jones, complete with a slightly ditzy love interest (sorry Thaddeus) picking precisely the wrong moment to try to assert his dominance over our hero.

The absolute best part, for me, is the fact that Rémy never quite lets him.

R&eacutemy starts the book under the thumb of her noxious circus director and crime boss, Gustave, and spends much of the rest of it being ordered around by — and underestimated by — any number of other men, but by the epilogue, she has shaken them all. We see her performing her act in secret, her own agent, on a West End stage, having chosen London as her home on her own terms. And that is something that both my inner fourteen-year-old and outer thirty-something self can get behind.

ART: The Midnight Archive

via The Midnight Archive – Art and the Occult – YouTube.

NOTE: Not strictly a Steampunk thing really, but obviously the tones of the Occult and the Aesthetic crossover with that of the Victorian era, and as much as we see it as some sort Edwardian aesthetic, we can see also how the Art Nouveau and Victorian feel, hand made accoutrements kind of vibe together, right?

 

Fiction Review: Doktor Glass

BY THOMAS BRENNAN
Publisher: Ace Trade (2012)
Reviewed by Cheyenne Kam

9780425258170_p0_v2_s260x420The main concept of this novel is something from a child’s fantasy: the “Span”, a bridge stretching from Liverpool in England to New York City in the U.S., built just as the 20th century is getting underway. Armies of workers have sunk pitons into the Atlantic, and designers have worked years to make sure the Span will stand, providing a link across the globe for new ‘atomic’ powered trains. The cost has been great, in money, time, and lives; a camp of dispossessed families and workers has grown up around the docks, awaiting the anticipated opening of the bridge and their chance to buy steerage tickets to America, as well as constantly hectoring the company who built it to compensate them for the loss of their husbands and fathers. It’s a powerful image, and the author doesn’t skimp on the details.

The rest of the novel continues the trend for steampunk realism: steam-powered cars, the hustle and bustle of the Victorian-era Met police station, crippled Boer War veterans trying to get by in the streets. It’s a fascinating world, punctuated by society balls with new electric lights, spiritualists, and rumors of the “Jar Boys” – scam artists claiming they are willing to capture the soul of a dying person with their new scientific device, and that in return for money there is the assurance of resurrection for the dearly departed. In this London, however, there is the possibility that this scam is all too real, thanks to the mysterious and much-feared Doktor Glass.

If only all this detail and historical authenticity had carried over to the characterization. Sadly, our protagonist, Inspector Matthew Langton, occasionally seems to be criminally naive for the hero of a mystery novel. He’s dealing with nightmares and insomnia due to the recent death of his wife, as well as a rather gruesome murder on the docks, but he pluckily tries to find who’s responsible–only to have every lead killed off as he plods along. He’s likable, and maybe he’s just at the disadvantage of not being the reader, but I know I spotted our villains from their first appearances. The other characters were also believable and engaging, but not gripping. Unfortunately, Doktor Glass did not live up to his billing as a super-villain, and for all the build-up, the ending is something of a let-down. The loose ends are neatly tied up, but I was left wondering if I still cared.

There’s the possibility that Matthew was missing some clues because of class distinctions which keep him from asking useful questions, but it seems a cheap way to keep him from finding the culprits. A Samuel Vimes (a la Discworld) or Sam Spade would never have been thwarted by this. There are noir elements to this novel, but our hero’s persistent naivete tends to obscure them. Maybe Inspector Langton and the author were trying too hard to do too many things at once: write social commentary, science-fantasy, and cops-and-spies action at the same time. Throwing in a mystery plot might have stretched this novel just a little too thin to reach the end with enough weight to carry it.

If you grow impatient with slow pacing and tangents away from the crime, you should probably go back to The Big Sleep. But If you want to read great world-building and good action, and you don’t particularly care about mystery plots, this is a good read.

Fiction Review: Ack-Ack Macaque

BY GARETH L POWELL
Publisher: Solaris
Review by Belle Cooper

ackackTo hear author Gareth L Powell tell it, it all started started quite simply: with a name. It was his job only to find the character and the story that name belonged to. He’s since managed to do so twice, first with a short story appearing in the UK fiction magazine “Interzone”, and later with a full-length novel. That name, Ack-Ack Macaque, was so evocative that he used it to title both works. It certainly makes for a hell of a draw: a monkey in an eye-patch and a bomber jacket, with a nasty demeanor and a heart of gold, who spends much of his time either dogfighting over Europe or taking out Nazi ninjas–no, really–with his twin Colts, chomping on a cigar the whole way.

Everybody loves the monkey.

Ack-Ack Macaque isn’t so much steampunk as cyberpunk with steam and diesel detailing. While airships and their delightful governmental autonomy do play a central role in the novel, they’re powered by nuclear reactors rather than steam engines. The year is 2054, and the UK is about to celebrate its centennial with the launch of a Mars probe. That’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain, France, Ireland, and Norway, by the way, a union forged in 1954 when France voluntarily gave itself over to British rule in the wake of World War II. Since then, it seems, the sun never set on the British Empire; one of the central threats of the climax is the possibility of nuclear war with China over Britain’s refusal to give up control of Hong Kong.

Our main characters are Victoria Valois, a reporter-turned-cyborg out to solve the mystery of her husband’s murder; Merovech, the reluctant teenage crown prince of the UK; and the titular Ack-Ack Macaque, star of the world’s most popular video game, gone AWOL and rogue into the real world. In classic cyberpunk fashion, the novel takes on questions about identity and the nature of reality in a world of advanced technology that includes artificial intelligence and computerized neural enhancements. All three characters find themselves facing these questions throughout the novel as their ideas about the world and their place in it are turned on their heads. Victoria, at least, has some small advantage, having two years of experience hacking her own brain under her belt.

My only real issue with the book is that I wanted it to take everything just a little bit further. The book touches on a lot of things without ever really exploring them: the problematic nature of colonialism and globalization feed into the central conflict, but other than the Hong Kong thing, is never really evaluated. The minor characters are rather one dimensional: K8, the Scottish hacker, does little more than facilitate Ack-Ack’s travel back and forth between the real world and the game and provide a little bit of necessary exposition, while Julie, Merovech’s French activist girlfriend, spends most of the book as a useful plot device (though, minor spoilers, she also gets one of my favorite moments in the book, when she tells Merovech that she doesn’t need rescuing, especially poignant considering that he’s quite literally her prince). Our two antagonists aren’t terribly complex, either, swimming in pretty much pure villainy and megalomania, and for one of them, some fairly gratuitous misogyny, seemingly for no other purpose than to let the reader know just how bad he really is. Even the imagined future of technology could be taken a few steps further. While the creation of the “gelware” neural implants is fascinating, as is the concept of the “soulcatcher”, a device created to record brainwaves, providing for a limited “life after death”, much of the rest of the technology of 2054 is indistinguishable from that of today. The “syncpads” referred to throughout are clearly iPads and tablets, and characters even refer to watching videos of YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I think YouTube is a fantastic tool, but I’d like to think that in another 40 years, we’ll have come up with something even better.

The true joy in the book is instead in the stylistic detailing, much of which set off gleeful little reference alerts in my head as I read along. In the age of the internet, it’s hard not to evoke some of its memes, especially in a story as steeped in social and connective technology as this one. There’s monkeys fighting ninjas, a heroine straight out of a comic book with her long army coat, retractable quarter staff, and invisible advisor, and a bad guy who reminded me of nothing less than Something Awful’s Slenderman. These little detailing easter eggs combine with an action-adventure plot that pulls you right along. There’s something cinematic about the way everything plays out; I could easily see this translated onto the big screen.

The ebook edition of Ack-Ack Macaque includes a couple of extras, including the original short story, which while it explores a few of the same ideas as the novel, is actually quite a different beast. It focuses much more on how people relate to one another through both art and sex, using the cyber elements as both a backdrop and a metaphor, and provides a nice contrast with the novel. If you’re looking for an action-adventure story featuring flying machines and fancy technology, Ack-Ack Macaque should be right up your alley.

ART: Printable Steampunk Apothecary Labels

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Magic Steampunk Apothecary Labels – an inspiring collection of different steampunk bottle and jar labels for Halloween. Put them on regular bottles which you filled with all sorts of things. Success guaranteed, by ~VectoriaDesigns on deviantART

Fiction Review: The Exile’s Violin (Tethys Chronicles, Book 1)

BY R. S. HUNTER
Publisher: Hydra Publications, September 2012
Review by Barbora Lyčková

exileCoverA fast-paced steampunk adventure of simple words and complex politics

Imagine living the ordinary life of a young girl in Vorleaux, the beautiful wrought-iron capital of the Republic of Alesir. There is school to attend during the day, open-windowed trolleys to travel around the city in, and a warm supper every evening. True, your parents have to pay a monthly ‘insurance fee’ to the local gang, and perhaps the police aren’t as efficient as they should be when it comes to dealing with rioters in the street, but, all things considered, there really isn’t that much to complain about.

At least not until your parents are murdered.

Meet Jacquie Renairre, a young private investigator with a roguish attitude and the manners of a seasoned adventurer. She recalls the night her family was killed as clearly as ever–after all, even though she herself managed to escape, she lost an eye in the struggle. Now, several years later, armed with a trusty pair of revolvers and a rich-beyond-dream, bored-beyond-imagination best friend, she is ready for revenge.

At first glance, The Exile’s Violin makes for an interesting read: an exciting setting with a complicated political background, a promising plot, and a main protagonist who had actually lost an eye rather than merely sporting a cool yet unrealistic scar across half of her face (I can think of only one other steampunk-literature example where the author was brave enough to go through with this, and that is Philip Reeve and his fierce Amazon of the Mortal Engines series, Hester Shaw). As wonderful as it all sounds, though, there is one small drawback: Hunter’s style of writing.

The plot, as action-packed and fast-paced as one can get, is held together by plain and simple phrases; and while I am aware of the fact that some readers may prefer language that is more down-to-earth, it is definitely not my cup of tea. As a reader, I enjoy complex sentences and interesting vocabulary, neither of which is to be found in this particular novel. What’s more, there were many suspicious places where some simple editing, such as the removal of repetitive words, could have done wonders: “It was a large steel box with slits large enough for rifle barrels to fit through in case an enemy invaded the base. It looked large enough to hold at least fifty soldiers at once.” (chp. 28, emphasis mine).

Clichés abound: “She just knew [he] was aboard one of [the airships], probably standing on the bridge laughing as his plan unfolded. She clenched her teeth at the image. She would make him pay, no matter what.” (chp. 27); “That was the last thing she wanted to hear, more taxes placed on the lower classes while the wealthy used their political power to keep from paying.” (chp. 5).

What’s more, every so often there was a noticeable contradiction in the flow of the story. Allow me an example: Jacquie is being led into an audience chamber and, on the way, she recognizes “the Imperial Royal Guards. The looks in their eyes frightened her. Killers. All of them were trained killers. She hoped she’d never see them in action.” Half an hour later, a military coup occurs, with foreign soldiers running “up to the dais and efficiently [disarming] the Royal Guards before they could even raise their weapons.” (chp. 16). In this moment, the reader becomes confused; I, at least, had to go back and read the introduction to the scene again, to see whether I was remembering that part about the near-invincibility of the Imperial Guards correctly. Even if it was written this way on purpose (enemy soldiers even deadlier than the Guards, the element of surprise, etc., etc.), I still think that an author shouldn’t puzzle their reader enough to force them to re-read entire sections of the novel.

So, as much as I liked the characters, especially Jacquie’s patient and long-suffering sidekick, in the end the style ended up being so taxing for me that I almost didn’t finish the book. I cannot shake the feeling that had there been more beta-readers, perhaps the novel would have ended up being accessible to a wider audience. As it is, I would recommend The Exile’s Violin only to fans of action-packed stories: the plot is there, it is strong, and it keeps moving forward.

If, however, you enjoy books not only for plot, but also for how they’re written, give the Tethys Chronicles a wide berth.