Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Steampunk Novels Abound! The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman and The Iron Wyrm Affair and the Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Normally, I don't start my blog review posts with an image, but I am going to make an exception for the amazing Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. I should note, first, that I was given a copy of The Invisible Library by the publisher/authors rep, and I had previously downloaded an E-ARC onto my computer that I just couldn't read, because my eyes tire of screen glare after about an hour, and I prefer turning the pages if I can, when reading something so engaging that everything else in my life disappears.
At any rate, the publishers contacted me about reviewing the book, and I asked for a trade paperback copy, which they kindly sent to me in exchange for a review.
As I noted to them, this book is right up my alley. I am a huge fan of libraries, and have been since I got my first library card when I was 5 years old. Because my asthma/allergies were so bad, I couldn't go outside much as a child growing up in Iowa, so instead, I learned to read and traveled everywhere books could take me in my mind. Librarians were always kind to me, and allowed me into the regular stacks long before I was even a preteen, because I'd already read my way through the children's section by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. So I started reading science fiction and fantasy novels meant for adults in 1967, and I never looked back. Libraries were havens for me, because I was a chubby, smart nerd at a time when those were the kids who got bullied and harassed constantly.
I have also been a fan of the "Librarian" TV movies, starring Noah Wylie, because they put librarians into hero mode, where they went off to find books and magical objects that were best warehoused (like Warehouse 13) away from those who would misuse them. The TV show of the same name has also become a favorite.
Hence this novel, of an adventuring librarian going to other time periods in other universes to save books and bring them back to the main library, was familiar, sacred ground.
Oddly enough, it did not start or finish as I thought it would. I assumed that Irene would be more like Flynn from the Librarians, but she was much less swashbuckling than Flynn, much more practical and sensible than he was, and much more concerned with the life of her apprentice/sidekick, Kai the baby dragon.
Here's the blurb:One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction...Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen.

London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself... 

Steampunk monsters abound, evil "skinwalkers" are out to get our heroes and a Sherlock Holmes by another name is on board to make this an adventure to remember. Cogman's prose is stellar, full of witty asides that make the bullet-train plot move at super sonic speed. My only nitpick, and it's a tiny one, is that I didn't feel that Irene should have placed her trust in Holmes/Vale so quickly and completely. She is bound by rules of secrecy about the library, and she seemed very quick to violate those rules because of her attraction to "the great detective," whom she has longed to work with. Vale was something of a condescending jerk, I felt, who neglected to realize and appreciate Irene's mind and role in dealing with the evil Alberich and Bradamant. She is an experienced agent, and did finally get the book back to the main library, so I thought that she should have gotten more credit from everyone than she did. Fortunately, she's going to be in a place where she can work on that in future novels, if the ending assignment is to be believed. I was so impressed with this exciting page-turner that I can hardly wait for the second book, The Masked City, to come out in September of this year. It will be followed by the third book, The Burning Page in December, just in time for my birthday! Obviously, this zesty bibliophilic adventure deserves an A, and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves Steampunk, paranormal mysteries, books, librarians and the Librarians movies and TV series.

The Iron Wrym Affair and the Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow are another two Steampunk paranormal mystery novels that I picked up at my local library sale last month. Emma Bannon, dark sorceress teams up with the inestimable mentath (human logic machine) Archibald Clare to solve mysteries of a supernatural nature in Victorian London. Here's the blurbs:
The Iron Wyrm Affair: Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn't help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon's Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.
In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs. Publisher's Weekly: Multigenre talent Saintcrow (Angel Town) launches a delicious steampunk alternate London that pays more than a little stylistic homage to Sherlock Holmes, adding additional excitement in the form of magical duels, backstreet chases, battles with giant mecha, and confrontations with ancient wyrms and gryphons. Emma Bannon, a sorceress working for the spirit of Britannia and her current physical vessel, Queen Victrix, is given two tasks: collect and protect Dr. Archibald Clare, an unregistered but skilled mentath (logic genius), and find out who’s behind the recent deaths of several mentaths and sorcerers. Bannon slowly begins to trust Clare, and as he uses his significant mental powers to work through the nonmagical pieces of the investigation, they become a strong team based on mutual respect. The absence of romance means a tighter focus on both action and deduction, and keeps the story appropriate for Saintcrow’s younger fans. Sensual writing, intricate plotting, and sympathetically quirky, satisfyingly competent characters make this series one to watch.
The Red Plague Affair: Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime in service to Queen Victrix, has a mission; to find the doctor who has created a powerful new weapon. Her friend, the mentath Archibald Clare, is only too happy to help. It will distract him from pursuing his nemesis, and besides, Clare is not as young as he used to be. A spot of Miss Bannon's excellent hospitality and her diverting company may be just what he needs.
Unfortunately, their quarry is a fanatic, and his poisonous discovery is just as dangerous to Britannia as to Her enemies. Now a single man has set Londinium ablaze, and Clare finds himself in the middle of distressing excitement, racing against time and theory to find a cure. Miss Bannon, of course, has troubles of her own, for the Queen's Consort Alberich is ill, and Her Majesty unhappy with Bannon's loyal service. And there is still no reliable way to find a hansom when one needs it most...

I enjoyed the supremacy of Emma when it came to getting things done, and I appreciated the fact that, though her mentath and her Shield Mikal both try to protect her, in the end, it is Emma who must put paid to all accounts and put her life on the line to save the day. Still, I despise the trope that is a throwback to bad romance novels, of a woman only being attractive to men if she's "feisty and petite." Why must protagonist females always be short and bird-boned to be considered beautiful and feminine? Why must they been seen as "child-like" in form to be valuable and sexy? Is it for the contrast to the men, who are always dangerous and huge, tall and craggy and manly? Why can't larger women be, as they are in real life, just as beautiful, desirable and competent as tiny, doll-like women? Why must women be "beautiful" at all? Why not be ordinary, normal, average-looking? What you look like on the outside has little to do with the brilliance of your mind or the strength of your heart and spirit.
This seems to be a truism that surpasses the understanding of most authors out there, and while I understand it more from a mainstream fiction point of view, I would think that fantasy and science fiction and Steampunk authors, with their license to create worlds where the strange and unusual and unique are commonplace, would be champing at the bit to make fat heroines, or tall and average-looking female sleuths, or even disabled/differently-abled women who use their brilliant minds to get out of a sticky situation. If you are a creative writer, how hard can it be? Yet, other than Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's fantastic science fiction series, I don't see it happening.

They say to "write what you know" to fledgling authors, and while I don't agree that you should limit your creativity to your experience all the time, I know of several larger women authors, like Cassandra Clare, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Scarborough and the late, great Anne McCaffrey who all wrote their female protagonists as petite or "normal" sized women who were beautiful and sexy and successful, but they were all young, petite and didn't eat much. Unfortunately, the same goes for Emma, who is a strong and vital sorceress, but she can't seem to take care of herself by eating and sleeping regularly, which is somehow considered charming and normal in these novels. In reality, it only weakens the character and real people, of course, and makes them less effective and more likely to need a man to rescue them. Still, I did enjoy these novels, though the British Victorian prose style took about 75 pages to get used to. The plots were as intricate as the prose, but they both had HEA endings. I'd give them both a B+, and recommend them to Steampunk fans and those who enjoy the Dune novels (for the mentaths) and the Sherlock Holmes series for the logical detective protagonist.

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