Of all the subgenres within Fantasy, steampunk is probably the one I read the least of, despite liking it pretty much. In fact, I have a whole shelf filled with steampunky goodness.. The problem is that I do want to read them, but after purchasing they go on the shelf and well.. they stay there. It’s one of my bad habits, really. So when the new Gail Z. Martin novel was delivered during the first half of July, I promised myself not to let it suffer the fate of all the other steampunks out there and read it as soon as possible. Mission accomplished, mates. Mission accomplished. Also, this pretty much must be the fastest I’ve gotten ’round to reading a book after buying it. Not bad, eh?
New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as ‘hell with the lid off.’
Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake’s cousin, Veronique ‘Nikki’ LeClerque. Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick and Nikki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake’s courage, every bit of Rick’s cunning, every scintilla of Nikki’s bravura and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.
Upon reading the synopsis of this book, I got so excited. While I like a good steampunk romp now and again, the combination with magic and ancient creatures sounded like music to my ears. See, this is why I have been disappointed with some steampunk novels in the past. At heart, I’m still a Fantasy-kinda-guy, so when it’s all technological stuff to the max, I feel a bit sad. Martin, however, did not hold back on the magic. On the contrary, while technology is very much advanced and omnipresent, the arcane has a very big pull on the story, and I loved it for it.
“getting high on absinthe
If there is one thing for which I would recommend this novel, it is for this, the worldbuilding. New Pittsburgh is quite an interesting place on its own, with its dark alleys, mines and the newly rich vying for power. However, the broader picture is very much alluring. Set in an age where technology is marching ahead, the past still holds the world in its firm grip with whispers of ancient evil slumbering in the deep. The surface of the earth is walked on by more than mere mortals as well. Witches, vampires, … Martin made sure that there is never a boring moment in her world, where details spice things up. I mean, a witch whose powers come from getting high on absinthe?!
All this is the wrapping paper around a plot consisting of murders, mangled corpses, wild rides and more clockwork than you can keep track of. While the story is put together well, I have to say, unfortunately, that a lot of the mystery was lost due to the perspective of the bad guys. It’s a trade-off, I guess. I mean, I loved reading from the side of the evil guys, but unfortunately it made the whole setup pretty clear early on. When the story got going, it was going in a blast with few dull moments, but knowing how everything ties together in the end before being halfway through, didn’t motivate me to read quickly on. But like I said, when it got going, it was going good. Lots of wild chases, explosions, nifty inventions and towards the end, the excitement got to the max with some more gruesome moments sparsed in between.
“murders, mangled corpses, wild rides and more clockwork than you can keep track of
The characters were a bit of a mixed bunch for me. I found it really hard to connect to either Rick of Jake, despite there being nothing that made me dislike them in any way. However, there weren’t any aspects that made me particularly like them either. While there were some fun moments involving the lads, it was Nikki who did it for me. I felt she was less constrained than either Rick of Jake, despite her being more constrained by customs because she was a woman. This made her stand out and I immediately took a liking to her. Another well-liked character was the outcast-cop with the ability to see ghosts. I can’t really pinpoint why I liked him, but it just clicked; as did the antagonists, like I said earlier, because we got their perspective as well.
I don’t have any particular feelings, whether positive or negative, on the other characters. The only thing I would have liked to see different is the use of the vampire-witch Andreas. This is a character with a lot of potential, but he only shows up to help saving the day. The book starts with a mission concerning him, and upon finishing the novel I can’t help but feel that it was a way to shoehorn him into the narrative so as to use him – or rather: his powers and posse. There is a lot going on in Iron & Blood and a lot of different angles are worked, which results in some aspects not being fleshed out as I would have liked them to be. Andreas is one of the unfortunate ones. Given that the ending clearly sets things in motion for a sequel – which I will undoubtedly read – I can only hope that these kinks get worked out and Andreas gets a grander role.
All of this is captured by solid writing. Martin knows how to tell a story and strikes a good balance between exhilarating action and plot exposition.
I don’t often read steampunk, but when I do, I like it best when I get an exciting story and some action and mayhem. Iron & Blood definitely delivered on that part and presents the reader an exciting world to return to. If you like steampunk, I would recommend picking this one up, cause despite my lack of connection with the characters – which keeps me from giving it a four-star rating – this is a very solid effort deserving your time.
★ ★ ★
Go on a wild ride with Jake, Rick and Nikki!
P.S.: Despite the gif, Taylor Swift and her posse are not in this book. Thought I’d clarify that, just to be sure.