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Steampunk Review: ‘The Kaiser Affair’ by Joseph Robert Lewis

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.

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Steampunk Review: ‘The Burning Sky’ by Joseph Robert Lewis

So there I was, struggling to get invested in a book with a fairly lack-lustre main character, a difficult alternate history setting and an opening stuffed with explosions and other dramas that I really don’t care about. And then along comes Qhora the Incan princess, with her pet sabre-toothed cat, and suddenly things are interesting. A sabre-toothed pet? Yes, count me in.

This has one of the most unusual settings I’ve encountered – a world where the ice age never ended, Europe is still in the grip of snow and glaciers and civilisation is clustered around a narrow strip of usable land. There are some locations with recognisable names – Marrakesh, Hellas, Italia, Persia, the Atlanteen Ocean – there’s an Incan empire across the sea, and there are some interesting beasties (the afore-mentioned sabre-toothed cat, plus a large bird used for riding). There’s a motley array of countries, all of them with their own belief systems, technologies and customs, trying to get along (or not). And there’s a nice steampunk feel – steam powered trains and airships, plus guns and electricity. It’s all very carefully thought out, and thank goodness, there are maps at the front and a vast, detailed glossary at the back.

There are half a dozen point of view characters, some with only an occasional chapter or two, which reveal all the various aspects of the complicated plot. Yes, this is one of those tales with a huge amount going on in several different places, and there’s a multitude of conspiracies and machinations to try to untangle. The problem is that most of these characters are not terribly interesting. Taziri, the airship engineer with the husband and baby at home, veers from feisty initiative to near-apathy. Syfax the soldier is a standard-issue macho type, solving all problems by bluster and fists. Qhora, the Incan with her Spanish lover and pet beasties, is more interesting, but even so she doesn’t exactly set the pages alight. There are hordes of sidekicks, as well, equally unenthralling. Frankly there are too few lulls between the action for any of these people to come alive, since they spend most of their time reacting to the mayhem all around them. There are some moments of introspection, which nicely illuminate the author’s strange and fascinating world despite feeling a little contrived (do people actually stop and discuss their beliefs while waiting for the bad guys to show up?), but otherwise it’s all explosions and fights and chases and narrow escapes.

I don’t read a lot of steampunk, so I’m not an expert, but I rather liked the imaginative way the technology is integrated into the plot. It’s not merely a backdrop for the action, and it’s more than a quick fix when our heroes (and heroines) get into trouble. I also liked that, without fuss or fanfare, Marrakesh society is matriarchal, although it’s disappointing that so many of the female characters are either villains or else very passive, being pushed around by others. Taziri, in particular, who ought to be an assertive female lead, spends way too much time drooping around and whining about her husband and baby. Still, it’s nice to find a fantasy society that’s a little outside the usual pseudo-medieval or Victorian box. The politics are a bit simplistic, but that’s a very common (and minor) flaw.

This is an intriguing piece of work, with an original and well-thought-out setting, but the constantly churning high-action plot doesn’t make up for the lack of deep characterisation. I confess that I got bored with the repetitive chasing about the countryside interspersed with yet more gun/knife fights, and skimmed a bit towards the end. I would have liked a little more sabre-toothed cat and giant bird, and a lot less fighting. Recommended for fans of high-octane steampunk, but for me it fell a little flat. I’m in a generous mood, so let’s say three stars.

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