Tag Archives: steampunk

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Every now and then you finish a book, close it, turn it over, look at the front cover for a while, caress the edges a little maybe, and in all likelihood give it a bit of a hug. Just a bit of one. It’s only a book, you know? Hugging a book is weird. So it’s only a bit of a hug. And then you put it down and get on with your day and find another book to read and life goes on.

Well, yeah.

All of that +10 for Stormdancer – except for the “read another book” bit because I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else because mentally I’m still going “OH GOOD GOD I WANT A BURUU”.

The one on the left is mine and I luff it oh yes I do

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

If you’re not sure if this book for you, let me give you The Checklist Of Awesome.

  • Alternative feudal Japan. With mecha suits, and yokai, and oni, and other things that make my grounding in Inuyasha and Gundam Wing suddenly so worthwhile
  • Mythical creatures that aren’t dragons, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, mermaids or fairies AND can disembowel you as easily as look at you
  • Dieselpunk/steampunk (author says steampunk but I’d disagree) technology that makes sense in mechanical, ecological, social, historical and narrative contexts
  • A flawed main character – entirely human and sympathetic and who grows and develops and is entirely like a 16-year-old but at the same time has that potential to be more 
  • Bad-ass fight scenes that you (if you’re me) decide to read twice because the writing is exquisite and it should be ridiculous but ISN’T because I think Kristoff has CLEARLY made a deal with a writing devil
  • Speaking of making a deal with a writing devil, even the big chunks of description are so wonderfully done you can’t hate him for it (damn you sir, damn you)
  • OH HELLO FANTASY BOOK THAT HAS A YOUNG GIRL AS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND DOESN’T MAKE ROMANCE THE CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE PLOT AND TREATS SEX WITH THE FUN *AND* RESPECT IT DESERVES OH HELLO WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE CAN I HUG YOU AGAIN OMG THE FEELS YEAH I’M GONNA HUG YOU AGAIN
  • Did I mention that romance isn’t the main focus? Even though it has a bit of a love triangle that it untangles without being incredibly patronising to the readers? YES I KNOW IT’S GREAT and don’t go looking for a clean YA resolution because Toto I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more
  • How about the emotional backbone being the relationship between a father and daughter? Or friendships, or families? The healthy ones (Yukiko and her twin), the broken ones (aww Masaru), the dangerous ones (OH HEY SHOGUN), the profound ones (BURUUUU) and so on? It’s all about family and it feels so much better than being all about romance for ONCE
  • This also counts as a dystopia, just FYI, and it wins at dystopias because of p.366 of my edition which was a glorious crowning world-building moment of awesome (and ick)
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS
  • LET ME REITERATE
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS

Okay. It’s awesome, but there are issues. People have pointed out the problems with the terminology before – THERE’S A GLOSSARY AT THE BACK BY THE WAY AND PEOPLE MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT – and how it’s apparently full of inaccurate Japanese. As a fantasy reader I feel like those issues can be side-stepped because it’s *fantasy* and how knows how the Japanese language may have developed in this alternative reality, but they’re valid concerns regardless, and worth the attention (excellent review there, I highly recommend reading it). I wasn’t sure about some of it during the book but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story – this is an entirely YMMV topic, I reckon, but I want to bring it up because it is, after all, dealing with a real culture.

One of my issues with it concerns the tone it takes with regard to the blood lotus pollution. It’s not THAT it deals with the topic, but HOW. It’s a great thing to be writing fantasy about but those segments – ESPECIALLY when Buruu lectured Yukiko about the pollution of Shima – come off as being really quite patronising and odd. I wanted to compare it to Miyazaki but Miyazaki is subtle and clever about drawing links between films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and the modern world, where this felt like being walloped over the head with relevance and significance and it was just… it was jarring. Kristoff proved he can be elegant and clever in almost every other aspect of this story, but that, the element that should linger the longest in people’s’ minds, was awkward. We weren’t being guided by his writing, we were being lectured to. Buruu is incredibly cool but using him as the author’s mouthpiece tarnished him a little. I’d love to get behind this aspect of the book but I just felt, for all the good he wants to do with this message, it suddenly switched tone from SFF to very young adult and then back, which didn’t work, and jolted me out of the story.

My most pressing concern? Lady Aisha. What was that? She was my favourite character aside from Buruu. Did that seriously happen? That was enough to knock a star off on Goodreads. Huge amounts of this book are ALL ABOUT the male gaze – from descriptions of the characters to Kaori’s face to the SODDING BATHING HOUSE SCENE THAT NEVER GETS PUNISHED oh god that annoys me – and although there are lots of aspects of this book to encourage and praise, this isn’t one of them. Lady Aisha feels like a casualty of that pervasive attitude, and it’s troubling – all the female characters are completely defined by the men around them. All of them. It could be read as an extension of the Evil Empire if you want to be kind, but it isn’t just that; I’m tired of Blokey Fantasy tropes and Stormdancer has lots of them. None of them are dealt with. They’re part of the story. I enjoyed the rest of it so much that this really troubled me, and for all I liked it, reflecting back on it there’s a lot I’m not happy with.

Aside from that I loved it, and read it slowly to savour the writing. I raced through the last third far too fast for my liking. People have criticized the beginning with its stately pace and how detailed the writing and descriptions are – I love all of that, and was sad the book wasn’t twice as long. For all I was deeply unhappy with aspects of it, I loved it so much I’d rank it up there with The Name Of The Wind for sheer enjoyment. I can’t wait for the 13th September to come so I can sell it to everyone. “READ THIS,” I shall tell them. “IT IS FUN AND GORGEOUS AND KICK-ASS. Also the cover is well pretty.”

AND I WANT A BURUU PLUSHIE GODDAMNIT

And the Stormdancer book trailer if you haven’t seen it is worth a gander because it’s hi-larious:

Unless you’re Liam who has no sense of humour.

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Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I recently found a folder of half-written book reviews I’d forgotten about on my machine. In the spirit of spring-cleaning I’ve spruced them up and ironed things out and I shall proceed to post them, for your delectation.

The cover art for the whole series is tremendous stuff

If you’re going to have an absent character become the star of a story alongside a hulking great mechanical behemoth and a zombification-inducing gas, you really have to call him something like Leviticus Blue. At the start of the US Civil War, he’s the one who wins a contract from the Russians to build a tunnelling machine to quench the growing thirst for gold buried deep beneath Alaskan ice; the machine that, on its first run, causes a massive catastrophe that destroys most of Seattle, ripping apart the ground beneath the city and causing a mysterious, deadly gas to rise. A gas which kills everyone it affects – and some of those it kills don’t stay dead.

And it’s all down to Leviticus Blue. The name that potential villains all around the world wish they’d come up with first, no doubt.

Let’s put aside the fact that this book has airships, pirates, goggle-wearing heroes, zombies, steam-powered technologies galore and a gloriously deserted, dilapidated, dystopic setting. The first thing that struck me about this book wasn’t just the great cover art or that it’s about some of my favourite things in the entire world save cheesecake, tea and llamas – it was that the main character is a mother, and she’s the widow of the man whose machine destroyed Seattle. I can’t remember the last time the main character/protagonist in a fantasy adventure was a mother, let alone one so closely connected with the apparent villain of the piece, and it was a refreshing perspective to read. And let’s face it, her story’s going to be awesome, because her husband’s machine destroyed a city and caused the Blight. It’s obvious straight away that she’s going to have an interesting story behind her – and it takes some coaxing plus one hell of an adventure to find out what that story is.

Briar is a great heroine, focused on rescuing her son from the remnants of Seattle when he storms off trying to clear his father’s name, with just enough secrets to keep reeling the reader in but just enough flashes of character to keep us on her side. She is really not dull. Her simple and uncomplicated purpose – to save her son – masks a complex character that I enjoyed following, moreso than Zeke, whose chapters don’t have the same flair, drive or spark that Briar’s perspective grants.

I loved above all else that this is a steampunk setting that hasn’t defaulted to the usual London or some other Ye Olde Englande perspective; it’s fresh and different and excellent, though the science behind it all is a bit suspect. Though if that bothers you then I don’t know why you’re reading steampunk or zombie fiction or anything in between, the science always ends up a bit suspect. It’s not enough to derail what is a fine adventure, elegantly drawn and shot through with excitement and ingenuity.

Having read the next two books Dreadnought and Ganymede (oh I wish I could read Clementine too!) I strong recommend the series to everyone, whether you’re fans of steampunk and zombies or not. The latter two are straight-up adventure stories that run lighter than Boneshaker for the simple reason that they build on the world Priest created with this first book, so it’s more like reading a fast-moving action film. So much fun, and not even remotely in the guilty pleasure region either.

If you’re not reading these then you and I, we should have words.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann. DNF

Ghosts of Manhattan takes place in an alternative New York City in the 1920’s, where cars are coal-fuelled, the Great War featured airship bombing raids and America is engaged in an ongoing cold war with Great Britain.  Vicious murders are happening across the city, the work of gangsters led by a figure known only as ‘The Roman’ due to his strange calling-card; shiny Roman coins placed on eyes of the deceased.  “This is a time in need of heroes“, reads the blurb on the back of the book.  “It is a time for the Ghost“.

I did not finish this book.

I wanted to love this book.  The cover is brilliant and the idea sounds very rich and intriguing; anything that can be described as “steampunk” and “superhero” and “noir” all in one go has my interest straight off the bat.  It’s a shame how much of a let-down it was.

Firstly, the title makes absolute sense given that absolutely no character within this book has any life to them at all.  To call them two-dimensional is being kind.  This is a plot populated by ghosts of characters, where the narrative voice tells us a certain character is good, or tortured, or innocent, or pure, and we’re supposed to go along with it given no other evidence to back this up.  We learn absolutely nothing from the dialogue because instead of any meaningful conversations, we get massive chunky paragraphs explaining everything about the world and characters that we need to know.  What dialogue there is veers between stilted and perfectly fine, but it reads like a puppet show.  It’s like a distillation of every other 1920s-set story I’ve ever seen, heard or read with all the life removed and replaced by textual freeze-frames of our hero posing on rooftops in his flowing black coat and red goggles.

Graphic novel material this is not, but it felt like a very poor Batman imitation every time the Ghost appeared and swept about with his propulsion rockets and weaponry.  The Shadow, too, got there first, and to be honest, I’d have rather read that again.  All the “steampunk” elements in the book (I got halfway and gave up so if there’s more, I apologise, but I couldn’t make it that far) are the coal-powered cars, a few moss-filled goons and the Ghost’s own machinery.  There’s no exploration of the science, no wider ramifications of the progress of technology; what I liked was a flashback to an airship bombardment, and the mention of the clockwork Geisha girls was a fascinating insight into what the world building could have conjured up had it been more deftly handled.  That, I wanted to see more of.

And then there’s the hero’s romantic foil, Celeste, the nightclub singer with a secret.

SPOILERS ahead for Chapter Seven onwards, specifically involving a scene in a bar and a confrontation with guns.  If you want to read this book at some point (I am totally prepared to allow that other people will get more from this than I did, it has a lot of very positive reviews) then skip the rest of this section.

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One of the heroes – Gabriel – has been sitting in a bar admiring Celeste, mulling over how much he loves her and how beautiful and feminine she is, enjoying her performance as does everyone else in the room.  Armed men storm in and demand that she is handed over.  A confrontation ensues.  There is shooting.  Gabriel manages to get Celeste to cover and after a moment realizes the shooting has stopped – and he wonders why.  He comes to the conclusion that they’re not shooting any more because they want Celeste unharmed.

So he decides he’s going to risk it and uses her as a HUMAN SHIELD to get them out.  Now, I don’t know, but I’m sure that the risk of him being wrong outweighs the benefit here.  It doesn’t feel right.  And the fact that the hero is using a nightclub singer as a SHIELD rather makes his heroism more of strange, sordid thing than it should be.  Even better, he later reflects on how he “tried to shield her” from getting as “damaged” as he.

At that point I knew this book and I were going to be in great disagreement on various points.  The luminously feminine Celeste is held up as a beacon of innocence and purity; then she shoots two men.  She’s a pretty crack shot, as it turns out.  Gabriel proceeds to compare what is clearly a harrowing experience with his own in the Great War where he watched his friend get shot, which was fine for a second, until I ticked it over in my mind and realized that what’s just happened is the author, via his character, effectively compared a running shoot-out and a struggle in car with the experiences of a soldier from the First World War trenches.

I tried to read on, but every time Celeste is mentioned, or seen on-page, it feels like we have to be reminded that she’s “broken”.  She’s the only female character in the book so far.  She is effectively so much of a non-character she has to be propped up by men like Gabriel – she never really speaks for herself but we get their thoughts, in the narrative block-paragraph-voice, telling us what she must be feeling and what she’s like.  We never see, we barely hear from her.  Celeste is the most ghostly character in the book.

Reader, I left it there.  There was no enjoyment for me in a story that I feel like I’ve seen in a dozen other places, or in writing that persistently irritated me, or characters that were so flat you could fax them.  I’m a fan of superhero vigilantes but there wasn’t enough about the Ghost to differentiate him from the other stars and pretenders in that field.

This felt like a first or second early draft of a much better book.  I’ve heard that Mann’s other works are great and I intend to read them regardless of how much I didn’t like this book – and in fairness I must point out that there are parts of Ghosts of Manhattan that are good.  The author admires his hero a little too much at times but isn’t shy of hurting him and having him make mistakes, which makes the action scenes more edgy than usual, and Mann is very, very good at coming up with potentially scintillating set pieces.

As noir, pulpy stories go it’s not the best, but big fans of noir would get more enjoyment from it than steampunk fans.  I would have a hard time recommending this book to anyone who knows the steampunk genre or the superhero genre; anyone who hasn’t seen much of either, or who is very much into their pulp books, would probably get a kick out of it.

I didn’t.