Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Read: 9 October, 2018

Karen Memory has all the fixings for an amazing story – Wild West steampunk featuring lesbians and Bass Reeves and a mecha-sewing machine? Bring it on!

Unfortunately, while I liked just about every individual component of this book, the whole didn’t work for me. Whatever it was, something about it didn’t click, and it took me forever to read.

Part of it is that I struggled to imagine a lot of what was being described. I understand that the built up roadways are based on the way Seattle was built up, but I just couldn’t picture it. Similarly, I have no idea what the sewing machine is supposed to look like. I know what sewing machines look like, and I know what mechabots look like, but the two combined? Whatever tinkering the characters were doing, I just don’t understand how the proper use of a sewing machine could involve getting into it, nor why it would have been equipped with arms and legs.

The book still gets four stars because, as I said, there was so much awesome there, even if it didn’t work for me.

Lantern City, vol.1 by Trevor Crafts, Matthew Daley, Bruce Boxleitner, & Mairghread Scott (illustrated by Carlos Magno)

Read: 8 October, 2018

I liked this story exactly as much as I like steampunk, because that’s all there really is going on. The protagonist is Blanky McBlankface married to Longsuffering McBlankface. They have one child together, named Pathos Manpain McBlankface.

The authoritarian state that they live in is every authoritarian state you’ve ever seen, complete with the autocrat isolated in his literal tower. It even goes full Star Wars and suddenly brings out “the Empire” about 2/3rds of the way through, after having referred to the power structure as “the Greys” up until that point. What Empire, you may ask? Who knows. All we have is a single city with some unknown danger outside its walls.

The artwork is tone perfect – being competent but without much character. Facial expressions are “realistic”, which makes them look wooden and dead-eyed.

I did like the plot idea of becoming an accidental undercover spy, though. It gives McBlankface quite a shock to realize that the guards don’t live all that much better than he does. I also liked that there are resistance allies on the inside who seek him out and make his subterfuge possible, which in terms traps him in their plotting. There’s a lot of potential there for a reluctant hero to get sucked in way deeper than he ever wanted. And maybe the series will explore that further and redeem itself.

As it is, though, I appreciate the aesthetic, but this story just lacks substance.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Read: 17 July, 2015

Sixteen years after Leviticus Blue undermined the city’s banks with his Russian-commissioned Boneshaker machine, Seattle is a very different place. The boring caused a gas to be released from deep underground, corroding whatever it touched and raising the dead as “rotters.” A wall has been built around the city to keep the gas in, but it’s only a matter of time before it comes spilling out.

In the meantime, Blue’s son, Zeke, ventures under the wall, into the Blight, hoping to find the truth about his father. After an earthquake traps him inside the city, his mother comes in the hopes of rescuing him.

With airships, fantastical machinery, and zombies, it’s hard to see where Boneshaker could go wrong. Unfortunately, there were a few key issues that prevented me from really liking the book. The first was the over use of coincidence. I can ignore it if it’s used only very occasionally, or if it gets the ball rolling, and it works in a series like The Wheel of Time where it’s explained by the world-building (in that case, it’s the pattern weaving itself toward certain outcomes). But in Boneshaker, major aspects of the plot were directed by coincidence – an earthquake that blocks an exit just when a character goes through a tunnel, an airship crashing into a tower just when a character happens to be inside it, another airship that just happens to be repaired and ready to take off when the characters need to escape, etc. Far too much of the plot relied on these big coincidences, and it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief.

Overall, it gave the impression that Priest was writing on the fly, coming up with the plot as she went. Sadly, I found the characters suffered from the same problem; I found them very underdeveloped. They are always reacting, getting thrown about the city by circumstances as though they’ve paid for the tour. I was often confused by a decision, which seemed out of what I’d been able to construct of their character, until I realized that it was necessary to get them to the location of the next adventure, or to show us a new area of the city. (SPOILERS: Even the ending, when Briar and Zeke appear to decide to stay in the city where they’ve been miserable and have spent the last few days in a constant state of almost dying, seemed the author’s romanticised vision of the setting rather than anything the characters themselves would have chosen.)

Many of the side characters seemed interesting at first, until they stuck around long enough for me to realize that Priest had chosen one interesting image for them, and that was it. They had cool armour, or an interesting look, or an implied backstory, but no depth. In fact, the only character that seemed to have any real personality was the setting. Which leads me to the book’s real strength: Seattle.

There were some anachronisms, but the alternate history provided some cover there. I still always enjoy it when books have a sense of place, and the landmark details certainly did that. Priest also clearly put a good deal of thought into how the city might look in the Blight. The ambiance, with the need to wear gas masks and the moaning of the rotters, was fairly well done, and Priest certainly did a reasonably good job of building tension, except that I just didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. As long as I could tour the setting along with someone, I found that I really didn’t care much if it was Briar/Zeke, or if they were switched out midstream for some other “guide.”

The mechanics of writing were mostly solid, but there were some very odd word choices that threw me. One that stood out in particular was the use of the word “for” instead of something more conventional, like “because.” It’s oddly archaic, and stands out from the text around it. I noticed the same thing in Huntress, and it bugged me there, too.

My final gripe is about the ending. The plot structure is what could be described as an “onion” plot, in which the real goal is the discovery of a piece of information – in this case, what happened with the Boneshaker machine. The question is raised at the very beginning, with a reporter approaching Briar for information, and it is finally answered at the very end. Unfortunately, the answer that had all the characters guessing, and at least one character risking his life and the lives of others to uncover, was almost immediately obvious. I read the whole book knowing the ending’s big reveal, and my disappointment was dampened only by the fact that Priest seemed to care as little about it as I did. Sadly, it came with a missed opportunity, as I think that much more could have been made of the connection between Angeline’s daughter and Briar, if only the characters had had a little more depth to them.

I found this to be a fun fluff book, and the setting is certainly interesting enough to make it worth reading. It could have been a lot better, though, and it’s a shame that the characters and plot weren’t able to better complement the location.

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Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine

Read: 13 July, 2012

The Circus Tresaulti is the circus that never dies. It is a haven for soldiers, orphaned children, and other victims of the wars that have ravaged the world. It is the one splash of colour and wonderment left to a people reduced to mere survival.

I picked up Mechanique after it got a fan review on Sword and Laser. I’m attracted to the visuals of steampunk, but I’ve never really delved into the genre.

The story is told in a non-linear collection of vignettes, and they cover the origins of the circus, as well as a “present day” plot line involving efforts to re-establish civilization.

I found Mechanique to be very interesting and entertaining. The combination between style and subject made it quite lyrical, particularly all the references to music, and I’ve rarely seen parentheses used to such great effect. Unfortunately, there are some proof reading errors (“…and then she hears a the[sic] chord shift to a minor key…” (p. 264) that are somewhat jarring.

But mostly, I just didn’t feel like I took anything away from the book. Stuff happens and the writing is quite beautiful, but I felt like I was just watching the story unfold from a removed vantage point; like I was strolling along a path that doesn’t go anywhere. Then again, maybe that was the point.

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