I came into this quite excited, because it’s nice to see some steampunk set somewhere outside the usual background of the UK and USA. It sometimes feels like a disproportionate slice of the genre is set in a late 19th/early 20th century London, and while I certainly have no problem with that, it’s occasionally nice to remember that there were other places in the world.
Eric Brown gives us that here, combining all the excitement and adventure you’d expect from this genre with an Indian setting that both gives us a taste of something different and lets him explore some of the difficult issues of empire and nationalism that sometimes get ignored in other settings.
The story is a fast paced one, full of sudden reversals, danger, advanced technology and suitably over the top villains. The rhythm of it is good, pulling the reader through the story but still taking the time to linger in the places it needs to. There’s a great command of detail here, and the writing walks the line between maintaining excitement and giving that detail very well.
The setting is probably the first thing that grabbed my attention. What you might call the standard elements of this kind of turn of the century adventure (airships and clockwork devices, advanced technology and tension between the great empires of the time) are all present and correct. Yet these are given unique twists to focus the tale in India, from clockwork elephants to tensions coming as much from the last days of the Raj as anything. Obviously, there’s a balancing act here, and there are a few moments when it doesn’t entirely work; when it comes across too much as an outsider looking in or fetishizing the exotic. For the most part though, I loved the setting.
I also largely enjoyed the main character, who really made the book for me. It was her voice, and her concerns about issues such as her own mixed race upbringing, that helped to bring in a lot of the moments in the book with the most depth. It’s not a coincidence that in a story with aliens (or as near as makes no difference) Jani spends a lot of the book exploring what it feels like to be an outsider. Or that, when we think some of them might be potential conquerors, we have her concerns about the British control of India to set them off. It’s a combination that always makes it feel like there’s more going on behind the main story, and there’s enough nuance and balance in that discussion to at least start to make things interesting.
There are a few things I wasn’t completely happy with, or that could maybe have been tweaked a little. I think perhaps they come from following the conventions of nineteenth/early twentieth century adventure fiction a little too closely. I feel, for example, like the main character spends a bit too much of her time unconscious or passing out, and maybe too much being rescued by other people as well rather than dealing with her own problems. I suspect that the multiple sets of villains end up a bit too much like one another in places. I’m also not entirely sure about the message that’s implicit in the idea that the half-Indian main character can only really be happy when she comes “home”, and who is automatically going to be happier with the Indian boy from her childhood than with her English fiancé. In both cases, I can see that they’re necessary as part of a process of character change built on the main character coming to accept all sides of her heritage, but it still stood out for me. Perhaps I’m overthinking things though, when I should just be enjoying what is otherwise a glorious adventure.
Overall, it’s a good, fun adventure in an interesting setting, with enough extra depth to it that it’s not just a throwaway read. I’ve enjoyed reading it, and it’s something I would definitely recommend. I’m looking forward to the next instalment in the series.
Reviewed by Stuart Sharp
Author: Eric Brown
Publisher: Solaris Books
Length: 384 pages