The Technomicron: ancient, deadly, powerful. In the 1860’s London every seeker of power – natural or supernatural – wants to wield it; and will stop at nothing to get it. Enter Cyrus Darian: hedonist, philanderer, alchemist and necromancer; hired by wealthy American Zachariah P. Dedman to find it. Dedman’s life, the honour of his beautiful haughty daughter Athena and the future of the world; all depend on Cyrus Darian. What could possibly go wrong?
I’ll come clean – steampunk isn’t my all-time favourite Fantasy genre. However, Dane doesn’t depict this particular slice of English history as any rose-tinted version of the burgeoning brutality of the Industrial Revolution – it is all shown in grubby detail with a reasonably clear-sighted view of just what was true the cost of all those steam gismos. Air pollution, dying vegetation and dirt, with a plummeting life expectancy for the poor souls trapped in English cities. Dane even describes a gloriously grandiose scheme to blow the toxic smog engulfing London out to sea.
But Dane gives herself an even greater challenge – Cyrus Darian is an anti-hero. Greedy, selfish and ambitious, his most constant companion is a fallen angel. This is tricky to really pull off successfully. Joe Abercrombie’s crippled torturer, Inquisitor Glokta, in his First Law series is the most convincing anti-hero I’ve encountered to date. But he is just one amongst a cast of strong, if flawed protagonists. Dane has chosen to construct the whole novel around Darian – so if we are too disgusted with his antics, there is nowhere else to go. We drop the book and find something else to read. Being the shallow, old fashioned sort of reader who enjoys rooting for the main protagonist, I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t want to bond with Darian – particularly as Dane chooses to dot around Darian’s timeline in the opening scenes. Personally, for me, this is the least successful part of the book. If I hadn’t already met and liked the author at Bristolcon, I may have abandoned the book right at the beginning and for those who are a bit underwhelmed at this patchy beginning, my advice is – persevere. It gets better. A lot better.
Because Dane manages to depict Darian as a thorough-going villain with a charismatic streak. And at no point did I feel that she flinched or side-stepped the harder or trickier aspects of this. So we are confronted with a main character who consistently doesn’t behave all that well… It could have all been a rather grim read, if the overall tone wasn’t briskly breezy with some nicely humorous touches – which isn’t to say that there aren’t also some genuinely shocking moments. What befalls Athena had my jaw dropping somewhat and I’m still slightly uncomfortable at that particular plotline – especially as we didn’t ever get to the bottom of who was exactly responsible for drugging her. However, it further establishes that Dane isn’t afraid to take risks as an author – while being capable of pulling them off.
Overall, this is a thoroughly accomplished, riveting read that certainly stands out from the crowd. If it is the start of a series, I’ll be looking out for the next instalment – and Dane’s other work. If it is as good as this, it’ll be worth it.