My thoughts on it to follow.
I, personally, like Jon Del Arroz. He’s a cool guy, got dank memes and seems to be a force for good in the community. However, I really really really don’t like a lot of his new book. While I know that his “Star Realms: Rescue Run” is very well received, it is likely that the same techniques that made that so good (according to reviews, I have not read it) make “For Stream and Country” fall flat. This might be a case of ‘First book in a series blues’, but I feel that there are a lot of potential problems that have risen up as a dark spectre to haunt the books for days to come, while Mr. Arroz finds his stride.
Steampunk occupies one of the gaps between Sci-fi and Fantasy in the same way that Cyperpunk is somewhere between Noir and Sci-fi (as over-genres. This can be over thought) so it’s fairly easy to mix it up. I don’t know how many Steampunks I’ve sniffed, fan fiction or otherwise where the first mate is the gay elf lover to an anthropomorphic pony fighting a tumblrite’s wet dream of a patriarchal father figure. Oh man am I glad I’m not in the Brony fanfic writing community any more. I think there’s a vaguely popular smut series about lesbian bellydancers in an airship who are also spies.
Now, I’m vaguely strawmanning here. Steampunk works best mixed with another genre. By itself, it’s basically a regency romance mixed in with what a Victorian would call sci-fi. Now mix it up. Throw in pulps, soft Sci-fi and a pinch of humor and you have a winning mixture for Steampunk. You cannot cannot cannot take Steampunk too seriously. The Affinity Bridge does it and it doesn’t really stand up. You cannot ignore the rich heritage of Victorian English literature, with its lavishness and life, without losing the Je ne sais quoi of Steampunk. Captain Kirk and his crew can be put on an airship with all the trimmings and it would be steampunk, provided it looks the part.
As such, while the book is very competently written with great ideas at the end, the book trips over itself over some characters, actions scenes and descriptions at the beginning. While there is a strong image to the actions scenes at the end, but sadly have to build up to it, leaving me feeling anemic through the first half. The half bit is not an exaggeration. I am going to attack these three pieces and describe the problems. If you are asking about plot, just read the description on Amazon. If I go too deep into it I’ll spoil too much. Best read it first. On with it. Spoilers ahead!
Characters are advanced too quickly and feel rushed in character growth. Take James, ostensibly the love interest and his growth from Callow Farm Youth to Science Knight for King Malarky. It happens in a month in story and there’s really not much explanation. While I can see him becoming this with a more reasonable apprenticeship (or just not becoming full knight until book two), there’s really not much for to me say: “Yeah, he can become a science Jedi Knight in a month”. He’s fairly whiny, ignores the main character’s feelings and often says the worst damn thing in most situations. There is little to no redeeming feature to him that I can hold onto to say, “yeah. That character has depth”. What’s more, for all the emotional weight that’s put on him (love interest and dead parents), there’s little to no payoff within this story. Now, if it’s built up to something great over time, hey that’s fine, but I’m not a human who can wait for something when they’re that obnoxiously. Some small things here and there, Marina’s betrayal at the commando raid and not during the ship battle wasn’t really justified, Talyen’s kinda all over the place (she has a vacillating character when it comes to orders to Zaira and Zaira gets her way a BIT much too easily) until Theo shows up. For all of the Iron Emperor’s personal hype he doesn’t really do anything. Hakerpal tells stories and is an engineer, but there isn’t enough scenes with him and his crew with Zaira to really feel it. A Scotsman or a Hindu for the engineer officer is shorthand trope for sure, but it gets a damn lot communicated to the readers! Having the captain interact with his engineer on hard or soft sci-fi (but not soft on the engine room) helps personify them and the ship.
In Steampunk, characters can have subtlety, but the genre is itself larger than life and suffers when it’s not larger than life all the time. For example, in Arcadia Snips and the Steamwork Consortium, cheeky thief Arcadia Snips secretly does care. The assassin has a secret flaw beneath his heady violence. The absent-minded detective isn’t so absent minded and so on. Zaira is the new girl with the inherited airship from her missing father. And that’s it, nothing except for the ferret is hers. James wants to be a knight and is oblivious to love. And that’s it. You’d think he shows anger issues towards the enemy, even though he hopes his parents yet live. Zaira grows throughout the book but as soon as her father shows up, she shrinks back before one of the better written characters in the book. Through Theo’s diary we see his grief and worry as well as his interactions with crew and what kind of hole is left behind. He is better fleshed out than the Main character, who rarely shows real anger and tends to react to new circumstances with panic and panic alone. I would recommend Zaira’s diary being revealed to the audience during the second book to reinforce any intended characterization.
I’m also going to give a few lines to Zaira here. We get it, she’s new. She hasn’t killed anyone yet. This is all so hard to accept and so on, but she moves too damn fast at the end that there’s almost no weight to her actions. Some things: 1. For all her instant regret in getting crewmen killed there is no moment of mourning to balance it out. A funeral scene would work wonders. 2. She forgives Marina too fast and Marina falls for her captainy charms far too fast. 3. James. I hope their romantic subplot dies in a fire. 4. She gets forgiven for eff-ups far far too easily. 5. She acts like she learns from the mistakes that get people killed, but then tends to act to the same spirit as before, except the happenstance of less death seems to excuse it in-universe. Zaira has great potential, especially if Jon Del Arroz skips to where she’s come to her own and we get some real worth out of her. But she skips around too much, from owning the ship to acting like a shrinking daisy at the drop of the hat to confuse me as to whether she’s thinking about things or just having no rhyme or reason. If she lets things go as she goes please give us a narration to match it!
The next bit is the boss fight with the enemy airship in the half-way mark of the book. I’m going to posit a law here: Wheeler’s law for Ship-to-Ship combat. The rarer the ship within the story, the more intense the battle must be. I was not impressed at all with the ship to ship combat in Steam and Country. It happens from afar, the character misses most of it in her room then saves the day. There is no other ship on earth except the two ships that are fighting. They should have fought each other at the edge of a hurricane with lightning lighting the cannonballs on fire as they fought. Of course, I exaggerate, you don’t want to play a winning hand straight away. The problem lies in the lack of frenetic action, the smell of gunpowder and the screams and ship damage and so on. Later in the Book, Mr. Arroz is NOT shy about damaging the ship, but here he is. While the instances that the ship lost power were exciting, it happened far too often to keep drama, and it didn’t happen at times of highest drama, or when it did, we didn’t feel Hakerpal’s struggle to keep it aloft. “I’m givin it all she’s got Captain!” is one of the most recognizable and greatest lines in Star Trek. There’s a reason that Nick Cole had the engineer of Ctrl Alt Revolt do minigames in their game universe to keep the engine going. Hakerpal struggling and speaking with the engine to get it going again would put real weight to him and what he does, rather than occasional and interrupted backstory relating.
In The Cinder Spires: Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, we see exciting and dramatic ship to ship combat. They burst out of cloud cover and divebomb with abandon. The fights feel less like capital ship combat and more like Bareknuckle boxing. The captains stand tall on their ship’s bridges and stare each other down as their men fight and die all around them. Zaira might be new at this, but no one else is on her crew. The Wyranth soldiers might not have figured it out, but there’s only a small step between sails to balloons, if you get me. (Which is not a can of worms I’m opening further. I cannot recall a sailing ship in the book that would be analogous. If there is something keeping them from the sea then Zaira needs to fight it because it’s awesome)
Lets half-jump genres to Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye. There the ship to ship combat (sci-fi capital ships) are more sedate, but it has weight. If a single beam, missile or solar beam gets through the shield… if the shields overload… if the power goes out… and so on raises the intensity to a high level. The character archetypes are the same on all three of these books, with variations to match, but the feelings are completely different. Ship to ship combat may be new to their world, but it shouldn’t be so new that they can’t broadside each other or have SOMETHING that really pumps me up and puts Zaira is in a real feeling of danger, rather than the vague feeling that she won’t die.
Lastly there is the descriptions. I won’t prevaricate, while the above two things are likely a matter of opinion and I can be wrong on a lot of it, I consider this point sacrosanct. Steampunk lives and dies on its descriptions and characters of inanimate objects. If there is a significant airship, then the airship (here called the Lilliana, which is in keeping with the most excellent traditions) must MUST MUST be a character in and of itself. I must smell the ship, feel the ship and see the very bolts it was fitted with. It must be described as many times as a secondary or near primary character. A good and small way to characterize the ship and the crew is, as it’s a mixed sex crew, have a heart with two pairs of initials carved somewhere. I don’t recall what the Lilliana looks like proper. There’s four turbines, cannons somewhere along the bottom and an engine room. I’m not too sure where the Captain’s quarters are, the canteen or the medic’s office, if it exists. The bridge is in the front with the new guns from the Rislandia army. Is there a bag of helium up top? Is it more plane than Zeppelin? What’s actually keeping it aloft, because there doesn’t seem to be an airbag? Ah Harkerpal, if you weren’t too busy with your glory days you could have spent more time with us. The scene where he describes the ship came so close! But the things were kept vague and, I think, to keep someone from wondering about the aerodynamics. If someone complains “Hey, the sci-fi isn’t all that great and hard.” I will smack them backhanded from the very aether. It’s not about that. There’s a reason steampunk didn’t boom IRL.
What’s more, there is a damn lack of actual STEAM in this steam punk. In fact, if it weren’t for the dress of the characters, Theodore Von Monocle (I love that man!) and the the the… name? Many times I was reading and I forgot what the ferret, Toby, looked like, brown, grey, ringed? He had a wet nose. What was Zaira wearing most of the time? Describe James Knight armor? What do the clanking spider-tanks of Wyranth look like? Could, say, James, actually show initiative and capture one, piloting it in a grinding rush while the readership is on the edge of our seats: Will he make it in time? If you’re a fan of Manga, read chapters 98 through 100 of One Piece. I think it would tell you the spirit of what could really make James’ character of a heroic youth pop without adding unnecessary layers to him, also showcasing Von Monocle luck.
Namely, I cannot tell whether this is a world of plenty or a world of famine. I can’t tell what keeps the ships aloft other than turbines. I cannot tell the type of swords, the design of the guns or the cannons firing into the enemy. You might say: “Ben you stallion among stallion of a critic, what does it matter that the ancestral sword’s description is not focused on, repeated or distinguished” Thank you, straw people. The problem is that if I don’t know what it looks like when it shanks up a dude, I can’t dwell on the character nor put myself in the first person of the narrator, who happens to be looking at a lot of this stuff from the first time. Does the sword have character? Should it? If it’s ancestral, yes!
The drug-addled Wyranth soldiers are great, but I have no clue as to their dress compared to the Rislandia soldiers. The Giant is amazing with great weight, but the Iron Emperor shows up and does nothing but threaten Zaira when she does not agree to marry her. He’s great as a character, but a lack of action hurts him rather than helps. I want to see him do deeds worthy of the title of Iron Emperor, but not having a fight scene or signature ‘Red Hand’. The smoking was fantastic, but failed to really push him into the super memorable. The Blue Eyes were GREAT, but I have blue eyes, my family has blue eyes and many of my friends have blue eyes. Could he have hypnotist powers? Can he make weak-willed people faint through sheer force of will? There’s so much to be done through him he’s almost enough to make me come back for the next story. Ahhhh so much potential.
Overall, Steam and Country is not bad and has good points. It’s just that I find what went wrong offensive. I don’t mind a hackneyed and done plot if its’ COOL. The good is the fight scenes between characters, the Giant and it’s drug, the evil characters in general. My enjoyment of the book just shot up when Theodore Von Monocle showed up. Once the actually plot gets going it has a good momentum and weight, and while James and Zaira’s conversations generally drove the pace to a halt, they are thankfully rarely important and can be forgotten after reading. While the airship is quite under-described and lacks the necessary character, the lack of a balloon above is quite interesting in and of itself.
A lot of people are liking this book. I did not much care for it, but honestly, I think I’ll enjoy the sequel more. Instead of an insecure and unseasoned Zaira unable to handle what’s going on, there will be a more experienced Zaira who’s accepting and building the family legacy of adventure. Instead of a James who got everything handed to him for the low low cost of him losing his parents, we’d get a James who has learned how to handle responsibilities, and, I HOPE, personal interactions.
Should you buy the book? What’s your tolerance for Mediocre Steampunk with great potential for Great sequels?
Will I be buying the next adventure? Yes, for the promise of better adventures without the slowdown of the character development that had to be shoved into too small a space. I WANT more steampunk, but it cannot be steampunk of airs and arrogance, it has to be bouncy, fun and zany. It has to dream big and not be ashamed of itself. Girl Genius is more popular than Boneshaker and that is more popular than the Affinity Bridge this is a lesson to remember. Sadly, few people have heard of Arcadia Snips and the Steamwork Consortium even though I consider it just the best.
If I put you off Steam and Country, Book One of the Adventures of Baron Von Monocle, hey, I’m sorry. I will recommend the second book in the works, Working Title: Blood of the Giants, Book Two of the Adventures of Baron Von Monocle. I’m looking forward to it and from what I’ve heard from the author, Jon Del Arroz, I think it’s really going to be a great read.
Have a pin-up for a reward for reading this far.