Rating: 2 stars
Length: Lengthy and detailed (446 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: July 2, 2013 from 47 North
Premise: The world has ended, and a new one covered in snow has risen to take its place--humanity has fractured into rival factions that war with each other as well as the Martians. The mysterious Founders, who live in a city surrounded by the deadly mustard gas, have kidnapped several faction leaders in the middle of negotiations. Romulus Buckle, captain of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, has set out on a rescue mission to save them or die trying.
Warnings: deaths in battle, maybe xenophobia. This one is pretty tame.
Recommendation: If you're hard up for new steampunk or different spins on steampunk setting, this could be fun for you. If not, the dialogue and scattered character introductions make it difficult to stay engaged.
What gives this one a fun swashbuckling air:
The story opens on Captain Romulus Buckle of the airship Pneumatic Zeppelin. When the aliens invaded three centuries ago and stopped electricity from working, humanity had to revert to older technology to survive. The setting makes for fascinating reading--people struggle to survive in the new snowy world, with each faction resorting to different methods. The Alchemists are quirky but scientifically gifted, putting together robots without the aid of modern precision tools, while the mysterious Founders hoard their strange devices and refuse to let people in or out of their city. People live close to the edge of life and death and seem to have settled into a routine of distrust and petty feuds, which makes sense given how difficult it is to share information. The narrative shows the roots of several feuds while also focusing on the rules about how strangers are treated-- there's just enough trust there to use as a foundation without alliances seeming like a foregone conclusion. We don't see too many groups at first, but the shape of the political system allows for plenty of expansion in the sequels and nearly infinite avenues for betrayal, even if the leaders of these groups have almost no dimension so far.
Richard Ellis Preston Jr. has absolutely done his research on how this technology would work-- we hear about everything from ballast ratios to water reserves to how to survive in clouds of gas, and all of that gels together to make the world seem mechanically plausible. The conveniences of the old world are forgotten; cars rust quietly after the supply of rubber from the tires has long since been harvested, and light comes from fire or bio-luminescent organisms that can be shaken to glow. There are some explosives, but they're dangerous and unreliable, and long-distance messages are sent via carrier pigeon. It makes for the impression that these people are working with the highest level of technology that's possible with electricity gone instead of floundering messily to the next step in an industrial revolution, and that can give this world an odd sort sort of a charm.
The narrative shines most brightly in individual set pieces, short scenes that carry only one mood and let the world flow around them. When the zeppelin is soaring through a cloud of mustard gas with engineers stationed on the outside to keep any floating mines from hitting the ship, everything flows perfectly. You're left with the impression that this ship is the only thing in the world, one fragile bubble that could perish at any moment without the unified efforts of the whole crew, and it's sad to see the scene end. The action scenes are also a lot of fun, since Preston varies up the settings considerably and uses the zeppelin to his advantage. People fight with pistols and swords and fists, doing so underground or in the midst of toxic gas or in the open space of what amounts to a fragile bag of flammable gas that will go down if it's damaged too severely. There are even a few good scenes on the outside of the zeppelin, with Buckle and his crew having to calculate the dangers of winds, ice, and flying menaces with only safety lines to prevent them from falling to their deaths. No two fights feel the same, and the narrative's fast perspective-jumping style works best when it's showing large battles from multiple angles to demonstrate just how chaotic a large fight can be when you're not zeroed in on the newest threat in front of you. Most threats are also explained as they appear rather than far in advance, so the warning about what could be out there in the sky comes as a hinted outline and then a risk assessment that reinforces the dangers more thoroughly than the dozens of reminders about how easily the zeppelin could explode can ever do.
The red pen:
Romulus Buckle himself shoulders much of the weight of the narrative and is thus one of its most glaring problems. He could get away with being only eighteen but also being a crack shot, consummate swordsman, great pilot, master of hand-to-hand combat, and shrewd commander; the problem is that he tries to do all of them at once. During one battle, he starts on the bridge, runs down to the engines, starts repairs and routes water, gets into a duel with boarding forces, nearly falls out of the ship, and runs back to the bridge to steer the ship himself despite the risk if he collapses and loses control of the wheel. He shrugs off Balthazar's complaints about a captain abandoning his command, but it's a valid point and jolts the narrative as well-- imagine Captain Kirk (who is not a bad analog here) leaving the bridge mid-engagement with the Romulans to help Scotty with engine repairs, check on sickbay, fight off invaders with his bare hands, and then run back up to the bridge with severe injuries to take over the piloting. That is how ridiculous this is. It might be forgivable if it happened in just that one absurd sequence or if he was the only point of view character, but it's chronic and accompanies constant reminders that he always eats last and takes every single risk that he possibly can to avoid putting his crewmen in a bad position. Larger-than-life heroes can work, but Buckle does so much that it's impossible to take him seriously (especially in the giant hat that apparently plugs into the ship--the bridge crew has these for no apparent reason and it's bewildering).
If Buckle was the only character with a point of view segment to himself, this could work, but the point of view changes after almost every chapter....and those chapters tend to be under ten pages, sometimes under five. Most of the major crew members get at least a few chapters here and there, and they all spend so much time explaining things that it ends up being hard to care who they are beyond "the Martian" or "that Russian engineer with the hat." These people (especially the women, you don't even know) tend to get two paragraphs or so explaining how attractive they are with their hair and their magnetic gazes and their nifty weapons, which again wouldn't be a problem if it didn't happen incessantly, including for one minor character who passes someone a note and has no other role beyond being very pretty but not noticing because she's busy keeping an eye on her pigeons. The descriptions of the zeppelin at least end up having some bearing on the plot, but the personal descriptions just....hang there and occasionally help provide weird sexual tension, frequently between people who were raised from childhood as adopted siblings. Taken together, the first quarter or so of the book feels like very brief chunks of action tucked in between long tracts of description about the people and technology, so it plods. As the action speeds up and we know the characters better, the pacing should improve, but for some reason the exposition morphs into the characters mentally explaining their deepest motivations and insecurities before we jump into someone else's head two pages later.
The language could have gone in almost any direction, since we're looking at post-apocalyptic steampunk set roughly three hundred years from the present day, but the direction it chose was not on the same continent as anything that made sense. In one scene, Buckle sees statues of famous scientists and we learn that the names of Newton and Galileo, among others, have been lost to history. It's decent shorthand to establish that this timeline has drifted far from its roots, but the things that do survive seem to have been chosen at random. For example, Max the Martian is described as having eyes like mood rings, because it makes sense that a trend from the 1970s involving cheap tiny trinkets has survived into the annals of human knowledge and that scientists who discovered the reaches of outer space from whence the Martians came are forgotten. That in itself could be glossed over, but the conversational style is a blend of Victorian-era formality and clumsy modern slang. And the sewers feature "floating chunks of something that looked like Spam." And helmets are described as being ancient Greek in style while long poles are compared to jousting lances. And people say "this party is crashed," "just peachy,"and "bring it on," among other modern utterances. This world is a wonderful idea, but the execution comes off as the author liking zeppelins and wanting steampunk without fleshing out the more human aspects of the narrative.
One final complaint: naming your zeppelin the Pneumatic Zeppelin is like naming your starship the Warp Drive Starship-- acceptable only if it's the first and only one of its kind, which this conclusively is not. Given how ridiculous half the human names in this book can be, one entertaining ship name shouldn't be too much to ask.
The verdict: There's so much potential here, but all the separate pieces seem to just hang there without ever producing a coherent whole. because the narrative can't decide if it's trying to be steampunk action-adventure pulp or something more nuanced. It's certainly possible to add depth to explosion-heavy books, but this is less blended and more just erratically bouncing between ideas and character background so quickly that it's hard to care about any of them individually.
Prospects: Book two of the Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin is Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War, which will be released on November 19th. I'd guess that this will be a longer series, but I haven't found anything to confirm that yet.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Cherie Priest's Boneshaker tackles steampunk in America from more of an Old West perspective, but the meticulous attention to technology is similar.
~The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack (by Mark Hodder) is straight-up bizarre, but Burton makes a far better swashbuckling action hero than Romulus Buckle does, in large part because he has the life experience to make his improbable skill set make sense.
~If you're after steampunk with science as well as a dash of the supernatural, Gail Carriger's Soulless is a brilliant piece of mystery-adventure-comedy.