I recently read ‘The Burning Sky’, the author’s debut book, and while I loved the original setting and found the story a fast-paced steampunk adventure, the characters never quite came alive for me. The author had a truly wonderful response to that; he made the whole Halcyon series (of which ‘The Burning Sky’ is the first part) very cheap, and encouraged readers to decide whether they agreed or not. And he added: ‘I want you to go read my latest steampunk thriller, ‘The Kaiser Affair’, and let me know if I have improved my characters in the time between the two publications’. I dutifully went off to check it out, started reading the sample and (you can probably guess the rest) yes, I got so engrossed I ended up buying the book and neglecting a long-awaited new arrival to finish it. So indeed I would agree that Mr Lewis’s writing (and not just the characters) has improved hugely.
Like the previous work, this is steampunk but this time with strong fantasy overtones. The story is part of a collaborative effort between a number of authors, who pooled their talents to create the background world, and then each set a stand-alone story in that world, under the collective title ‘The Drifting Isle Chronicles’. The Kaiser of the title is Ranulf Kaiser, imprisoned for complex and ingenious financial crimes, who has managed to escape from prison only a short time before his release date. Our heroes, Bettina Rothschild and her husband Arjuna Rana, are given the task of tracking down the missing Kaiser and putting a stop to whatever nefarious schemes he has in mind. And so begins an entertaining chase all round the city of Eisenstadt, and above it, too.
The two main characters are a delightful pair, with a charmingly bantering relationship and a liking for steamy sex in unlikely locations. While Bettina is clearly the senior (in professional terms), and is the one giving orders, she generally sits out the fights, while improbably athletic husband Arjuna does battle with the baddies. This makes her seem oddly passive. I appreciate that the author has put female characters in strong plot-driving roles, and obviously they don’t all have to be the kick-ass type, but the contrast between these two is extreme. However, when Bettina does get drawn into a fight, she’s quite capable of laying into her opponent without a problem, and I totally loved the imaginative ways she used her cane. Another nice contrast between the two – Bettina is smart and thinks things through carefully, while Arjuna is clever in a different way, knowledgeable and with what appears to be a photographic memory.
The other characters are relatively minor, but are neatly drawn, if a little one-dimensional at times (but then minor characters are allowed to be). The plot is hare-brained, of course, but it hardly matters and it all resolves itself very effectively and logically. And (the part I really liked) there are some wonderfully fantastical elements – the drifting isle itself, slowly circling above the city, mysterious and enticing; the talking birds; and the shadow people. I really love this kind of world – original, intriguing and wildly unpredictable.
I’ve found it fascinating to read these two samples of the author’s work back to back. The style is the same, of course, and both could do with a bit more polish on the editing front, but where one had a mish-mash of main characters and a complicated inter-weaving of plot threads, this one focuses tightly on just two characters and follows them throughout the book. There’s still a lot of chasing about and fighting and guns and improvised weapons and even a bow but the actual injuries are few, and they are more realistic, no more than a few scrapes here and there or the occasional arrow to the shoulder, so the whole story is more plausible and less cartoonish (although – an autogyro chase? Well, that’s different!). There isn’t much introspection or philosophising going on, and I wouldn’t say the characters are exactly deep, although there are one or two moments when they do reach for something more meaningful (especially the discussion about Arjuna’s home), but they’re always likeable and behave believably. In addition, there’s loads of humour and a light touch that is (to me, anyway) way more enjoyable than ‘The Burning Sky’. Highly recommended for a light, entertaining read. Four stars.