The Society of Steam, Book Two
Trade Paperback 305 pp.
Kindle Ed. 828 KB/327 pp.
Cover Illustration ©Justin Gerard
Kindle Ed. 828 KB/327 pp.
Cover Illustration ©Justin Gerard
Sir Dennis Darby has been murdered, the Automaton has been destroyed, and Sarah Stanton has turned her back on a life of privilege and comfort to try and find her way in the unforgiving streets of New York. But Lord Eschaton, the villain behind all these events, isn’t finished with her yet. His plans to bring his apocalyptic vision of the future to the world are moving forward, but to complete his scheme he needs the clockwork heart that Sarah still holds.
But she has her own plans for the Automaton’s clockwork heart—Sarah is trying to rebuild her mechanical friend, and when she is attacked by the Children of Eschaton, the man who comes to her rescue may be the one to make her dreams come true. Emelio Armando is a genius inventor who had hoped to leave his troubles behind when he and his sister left Italy for a life of anonymity in the New World. Now he finds himself falling in love with the fallen society girl, but he is rapidly discovering just how powerful the forces of villainy aligned against her are, and that fulfilling her desires means opening the door to a world of danger that could destroy everything he has built.
The Society of Steam takes place in a Victorian New York powered by the discovery of Fortified Steam, a substance that allows ordinary men to wield extraordinary abilities and grants powers that can corrupt gentlemen of great moral strength. The secret behind this amazing substance is something that wicked brutes will gladly kill for, and one that Sarah must try and protect, no matter what the cost.
It took me a while to get to this book as I am not a huge Steam Punk fan and I thought the cover looked Young Adult. While the book is Steam Punk it is not YA. It might be appropriate for older YA, because while sexual feelings are discussed they are not acted upon. I don't always like Steampunk which I explain below, but this was different.
Sarah Stanton is the estranged daughter of a member of the Paragon Society, a group of scientists and engineers who are superheroes a la "Iron Man." It's the smarts and the suit that makes them special. They are fighting the Villainous Lord Eschaton and his children who seem to depend on size, strength, brute force and cunning as their abilities. In the course of trying to repair a clockwork heart she meets Emilio a brilliant Italian immigrant and his feisty sister Viola.
The quality of the prose is intelligent and very good but the characterizations are uneven:
- The Italian engineer/romantic interest, Emilio is done well, if a bit of a bumbler, and a lot is made of his language problems.
- The heroine, Sarah is drawn as a very conflicted young woman with high expectations for herself. In a different book she would have attended Vassar and gone on to be a Suffragette.
- Emilio's sister Viola, however is a caricature: what a Manhattan society matron might have thought an Italian immigrant would be like. Maybe that is what Mayers was going for, but I feel it reinforces rather than points to stereotype. She dresses too provocatively, gestures too much, she is too loud, etc. She is a cross between Sophia Loren, Rosie Perez and Britney Spears playing that role in a movie. Throughout, the characters that seem more comic book/superhero-like are characterized as such.
The construction of the story was a bit jumbled.
- Many characters and I had a hard time keeping track of who was who.
- There is not much in the way of backstory so it is a bit like walking into a conversation.
- There are a few chapters where timelines are recounted from different characters' points of view. That took me by surprise.
|Manhattan 1873 Image via Wikipedia|
Mayer's story takes place in an alternative, Victorian-period New York with different scientific principals at work. In some ways it is familiar, and in others not so much. For example, there seems to be a defined class structure with Italian food referred to as "common." And then there is the science (more later).
The later Victorian period in Manhattan was a period of societal upheaval. The end of slavery and the growth of immigration filled Manhattan and the Burrough's with people seeking opportunity. This was the period when nationalist epithets, like "Wop," "Dago," and "Mick" were used as a matter of course, especially by the cruder elements of society. In this book several such words are used as they would have been then.Mr. Mayer responded to my question about the name use:
The name calling is intended to show the deep ethnic tensions that existed at the time, and in particular point out that races that are deeply integrated into American society today were once ostracized as outsiders and foreign invaders, as many of the Hispanic races are today. It's also to show that there was a great deal of hatred riding just below the surface.communication added Feb. 2, 2012
The combination here of the Steampunk world with the Comic-Book Super Hero character is very interesting. I think it is rather silly that the people adopt these costumes, masks and personae with weapons built into the costume and that is what they depend on to save the world. The Paragons' superpowers are all contained in the engineering of their costumes. The villain, Lord Eschaton, is powered differently.
In abdicating magic for "science" Steampunk strides to a level of suspension of disbelief to which I rarely ascend. Magic and the supernatural require an addition to the world as we know it. After all, everything we see as science now was once magic. But Steampunk strives to change physics. There are things like æther and magnetism and fortified steam and smoke.
What saves this book from that step too far for me is the comic bookishness of it, and while the devices and such are present it seems the characters, particularly Sarah and Emilio, are much more important to the story. While emotional scenes like a death are short, the story has heart.
In this book the world Sarah has known is coming apart and a new reality is forming around her. There are only a few people she can trust. Emilio's and Viola's worlds also change with Sarah's entrance into their lives. They go from the stereotypical immigrants struggling to make ends meet to Sarah's cohorts in just a few days.
The Paragon Society's past and it's dispute with Eschaeton and his creatures brings up some moral ambiguity. The behavior of Sarah's father and the brilliant scientist who worked with them, Darby, is occasionally recalled as questionable. The lines between good and evil get a little blurry. This is a vital growth point for characters, especially as they strike out on their own.
This was an enjoyable and pretty "clean" read. Once or twice it seemed like Emilio and Sarah might get hot and heavy, but propriety was maintained. There is violence, but it is not graphic.
Hearts of Smoke and Steam is a book I would especially recommend to people who like Dr. Who, steampunk, or graphic novels, but I think it has a wide audience and could be enjoyed by many. I am looking forward to the next installment in the series!
Available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.
Disclosure: Book provided unsolicited by publisher in expectation that any review would be fair. Unless otherwise noted, all opinions are my own. No remuneration was exchanged.