I am fascinated by the necessity those of us interested in genre fiction seem to
have for classification. Cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, space opera, high fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Oh and the debates that ensue throughout the community when something is misclassified. In any case, there is no doubt what Dead Iron is – steampunk. Unfortunately, for author Devon Monk, it is steampunk reminiscent of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West. While a far more successful execution of storytelling it shares a confusion with Smith’s flop film about what it’s trying to be. This shouldn’t be read as a condemnation, rather a point of reference for discussing a book I ultimately I enjoyed.
Cedar Hunt is a man cursed by the Pawnee gods to hunt the Strange. He bears his curse, but is forever tormented by how it twists his humanity. Traveling west, he follows the Strange to a town named Hallelujah that lies in the inexorable path of expanding rail. When a child mysteriously goes missing, Hunt takes on finding him despite the town’s mistrust of an outsider. Hunt’s quest soon becomes much more as he sets himself against the Strange who would destroy not only Hallelujah but humankind in their entire.
Like any novel of genre fiction the nuance and ambiance the author sets are critical to success. Monk, trying to create fantasy, offers the Strange. The Strange comes from another plane where something akin to demons rule. It spills into the world and taints it. Personified by two characters, Mr. Shunt and Mr. Lefel, it is linked to the expansion of the railway as it paves a way to carry the Strange itself across the land. There is an obvious, if not overt, metaphor here about the expansion of technology and its impact on humanity.
Monk combines the Strange and technology powered by gear and steam with something called glim. Glim is essentially the Strange made tangible. Placed into a construct of metal and oil it brings technology to life or at least supercharges it. Every time glim made an appearance I was reminded of Tim “The Toolman” Taylor from ABC’s 90′s hit, Home Improvement – more horsepower! I found the gears and steam extremely satisfying, but imbuing them with the Strange felt unnecessary and made inventing somewhat tangental to “magic”. It made what I felt like was an alternate reality steampunk novel feel like Final Fantasy. A few times I was sure Monk was moments away from summoning Bahamut.
As for the worldbuilding, Monk does a satisfactory job. Hallelujah is well imagined. It feels right – a frontier town like any other in an old western, replete with blacksmith, banker, storekeeper, town bully, wild eyed dreamer, and hard working black man looked down on by his peers. While it felt authentic, at least as I imagine a western town to be (since all my experience in such comes from Silverado and The Magnificent Seven), it didn’t feel particularly original or unique.
Beyond Hallelujah, the world is only hinted at. Airships, universities, unseen technology, and mysterious cabals lurk beyond the mountains in the east. In this I think Monk did a better job. Her world felt far more fleshed out and alive than the town itself. It is unfortunate that we never see this world in Dead Iron, but I am certain more will come in the promised sequels. That said, the novel itself is entirely self contained and should I never read a sequel I wont be worse off for having spent the time reading this one.
It should be noticed that I’m now easily seven paragraphs into his review and I haven’t mentioned the plot outside of a brief introduction. Believe it or not, it’s intentional. The plot in Dead Iron is good. It’s fun, with adequate emotion and action. If it seems a bit abstract at times when Mr. Lefel waxes poetic about the Strange, it quickly finds it’s way again. But to me, in a novel like this the plot is of secondary concern (assuming it’s adequate, which it is). The success or failure of Monk’s first installment in the Age of Steam series, and her subsequent sequels, will be entirely dependent on how readers connect with the world she’s created.
For me, it was ok. I believe she would have better served if Dead Iron had been her second installment in the series. The remembrances of Hunt’s time among the Pawnee and his days of learning in the east would have been far more compelling of an introduction to Monk’s world. Furthermore she could have avoided the strong emphasis on the Strange and glim and instead explored more of the steampunk tradition before turning things on their head with the introduction of “magic”. This combination is what seems to lead the book astray as it loses cohesion in trying to be a western, a steampunk novel, and more traditional fantasy all at the same time.
All that said, I enjoyed the book. The characters are warm and alive. I feel confident in recommending the book to fans of the sub genre. I feel even more confident in the fact that the next book in the series will be better than the first.