Tag Archives: steampunk

Book Review: Aukland Allies by Mike Reeves-McMillan

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_rev104Genre: Urban Fantasy with Steampunk Highlights

Description: As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand’s supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it’s a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies–and how to protect themselves.

Another fun read from Mike Reeves-McMillan, author of the Gryphon Clerks series. Disclaimer called for as usual; I beta read for Mike (and vice-versa) and I beta read this book. What I usually expect from Mike is a book with very deep and powerful characterization, but a bit of a disorganized plot that could be tighter.

Aukland Allies is an exception to that rule. It’s fast-paced, with a well-knit story line that blends a thrilling struggle against nefarious foes of awesome power with nerdy personal conflicts and a bit of off-beat romance.

The story is set in Aukland, New Zealand, where Mike lives. That’s an unusual setting for urban fantasy. Most UF stories are set either in the United States or in the UK. But it works well, and the descriptions of the city and its barely-tamed environs are a large part of the book’s considerable charm. One delicious scene has Sally overcoming an armed and magically potent attacker using local wildlife as a weapon, in a way that strangers from the northern hemisphere would never expect.

Aukland Allies is not only a great story in its own right, but it has the potential to start an urban fantasy series that’s unusual and way above average. It’s got a subculture of magical practitioners, with shadowy, authoritarian people in positions of power, fascist nasties like the Blokes in Black, and much youthful rebellion and challenge to fossilized tradition.

Applying my usual objective system, I’m going to give Aukland Allies five stars. This is the first time I’ve done that for one of Mike’s stories, but this one has superior characterization and writing (as his usually do), and also a superior plot.

If you like urban fantasy, geek culture, or occult stories, get this book.

It’s available at Amazon and other outlets for $2.99.

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Book Review: Beastheads by Mike Reeves-McMillan

mrm-beastheads-eBookCoverGenre: Fantasy/Steampunk

Blurb: When the old shaman took Berry away from her home and family, she expected to become a shaman in turn. But after her oath shatters, she finds a new place as a Gryphon Clerk, helping negotiate a treaty with the beasthead people.
A beasthead shaman stands against her, fearing the loss of his people’s way of life and the corruption of their youth. As the Human Purity movement gains power in a nearby realm, though, the beasthead and the clerk must find a way through their differences before war destroys everything they value.

The author calls Beastheads Volume 0 in his Gryphon Clerks series. Other books in the series include Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man. All these stories are set in a fantasy world where human slaves rebelled against a tyrannical elvish empire in the past, and today the human nations live with the cultural and magical residue left behind by the elves. As with other stories in the series, Beastheads addresses a theme of racial bias and intolerance, as well as the tension between progress and conservatism.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I was a beta reader for Beastheads and know Mike Reeves-McMillan via social media. He also beta reads for me.

As with all of Mike’s work, Beastheads is strongly character driven. The plot grows organically from the interaction of the characters like vines twisting about one another as they emerge from the soil. In Beastheads, the twisting vines include Berry’s shamanic destiny, interrupted and sidelined into the Gryphon Clerks; Breeze and Wave, each with an animal soul merged into a human body, but different animals (wolf and seal, respectively), their love seen as odd from the outside for this reason; Rain, orphaned and struggling to survive her childhood on the gang-dominated streets; Stone, gay in a sharply homophobic world; Grass Badger, irritated and irritating cattlehead shaman who fears any and all change; in each case a note struck of difference, alienation, difficulty fitting in. The beastheads themselves, who are the result of a weird elven experiment (humans with cattle, dog, or cat heads and some characteristics from the animals) sound the same note on a larger scale.

The team of misfit Gryphon Clerks is sent to negotiate a treaty with the beastheads, and must deal with their suspicions of outsiders and, eventually, the outside world’s suspicions of them, as well as its exploitation of their weaknesses. So many harmonic notes are sounded regarding the interaction of the alien that the end result is almost symphonic, and it is this rather than any conventional plotting lines that make Beastheads the story that it is. The conflict between Berry and Grass Badger, which encompasses her failed apprenticeship as well as his resistance to anything threatening to change the beasthead way of life, is particularly poignant.

For above-average writing and superb character development, along with detailed exploration of the theme of racism and intolerance in a fantasy setting, I’ll give this book four stars. The plotting and story line could have been tighter and more gripping, hence the lack of the fifth star. Beastheads is still well worth taking a look in my opinion.

Beastheads is available from Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99.

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Book Review: Hope and the Clever Man by Mike Reeves-McMillan

HopeAndTheCleverMan_rev_58Hope and the Clever Man is the second volume in the Gryphon Clerks series or universe. The first volume, Realmgolds, I reviewed here. One of the main characters from Realmgolds, the Realmgold Victory, appears as a minor character in Hope, which like the other books in the Gryphon Clerks universe is an other-world fantasy with a steampunk feel (although it’s not true steampunk, as the technologies are mostly magical).

Hope is named for the main character, Hope at Merrybourne, a young student of the arcane. We learn of her troubled relations with her mother and her deep self-doubt that obscures her considerable talent, and that she is a very pretty woman who doesn’t know it. The story takes Hope through her school years and her conflicts with other students, which reflect both class conflict and the battle of the sexes, and puts Hope in a bind of her own making that limits her achievements in school. After graduating, she becomes part of the Realmgold’s project to nurture magical technology, and joins the Clever Man Works, where we meet Dignified Printer, the “clever man” and master of the Clever Man works, his gnome assistant Bucket, and other gnomes. We also learn of the enslavement of the gnomes to the dwarves, and this makes up a lot of the conflict and the story line as the tale continues.

The struggle of the gnomes to liberate themselves, along with Hope’s personal struggle to recover from her mistake during her school years, which has left her with an unpleasant curse, and the development of new technologies that feed into the gnome liberation struggle while resulting (as usual for new technologies) in unforeseen consequences, is the story that Hope and the Clever Man tells, but as is often the case with Mike’s work, that story is less important than the unfolding of the characters, particularly Hope herself.

The plotting in Hope and the Clever Man could definitely have been tighter and constructed so as to increase the flow of tension to a climax. On the other hand, the characters are deep, believable, admirable, and sympathetic, with enough leavening of flaws and shortcomings to make them human (or quasi-human in the case of the gnomes). The writing is also very good, as Mike’s style and abilities as a wordsmith continue to evolve and improve. The rather slack plotting prevents me from giving the book five stars, but it definitely deserves four.

Hope and the Clever Man is available for $4.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store.

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Book Review: Le Theatre Mechanique (Chroniker City) by Brooke Johnson

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Le Theatre Mechanique, the second book in Brooke Johnson’s Chroniker City universe, was a slight disappointment after the splendid achievement represented by The Clockwork Giant. It’s still worth a read, but it needs a round of copy-editing and the story could be better paced and developed. The characters and language are both superb, and for that I’m going to give it four stars.

Le Theatre Mechanique does not continue the story that was left unresolved at the end of The Clockwork Giant, but instead follows Petra’s adopted brother Solomon Wade in his pursuit of a career in acting. The situation is complicated by a sick child in the household which cannot afford the medicine and treatment she needs to have a good chance of survival, plus the situation of a young actress at the theater, who is being dominated and exploited by an actor who is also the son of the theater’s owner. The characters are all well developed. Solomon’s theatrical ambitions and his deep uncertainty and insecurity about them are sides of him that didn’t emerge in the earlier book. The reflections on the harsh cruelty and elitism of Victorian society are well played also: subtle and biting both.

It’s a good enough story, but lacks the tension-building that makes for a truly great story. Still, it held my attention all the way through, and I cared very much about what happened to Solomon, the little girl, and the actress.

The main reason I found Le Theatre Mechanique a bit disappointing is that the copy-editing seemed unfinished. A good example is the description of the young actress’ smile. Her smile “showed the gap between her teeth” every time she smiled. This was a good phrase to use once, or maybe twice. But it should have been edited out of all of her subsequent smiles, or at least most of them. I knew by that time that she had a gap between her teeth. I didn’t need a reminder, and that was quite distracting. There were a few comparable errors of style and wording scattered through the book, all of them fixable with a round of editing. This is entirely correctable, and hopefully it will be rectified in future editions.

I can still recommend the book, although not as highly as I can the first in the series.

You can buy Le Theatre Mechanique for $2.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store, and it’s also available in print for $5.99.

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Book Review: The Clockwork Giant (Chroniker City) by Brooke Johnson

TCGmedJPGThis review is something of a departure for this blog, because The Clockwork Giant and its sequel, Le Theatre Mechanique, are not fantasy properly so called; they are young-adult steampunk, classic variety, set in Victorian England, with no magic, quasi-humans, deities or devils or superbeings, or fantasy elements generally involved. I’m doing this because I loved the first book, but there’s also a certain amount of crossover in the sense of wonder elicited by the splendid mechanical devices involved in the story.

I’m going to give The Clockwork Giant 5 stars, something I very rarely do. My rules on this remain what they have always been. I look at the plot/story, the characters, and the writing, and base the review on how many of these exceed the average and by how much. If none of them do, I don’t review the book. If one does, I’ll usually give it a 3-star; if two do, 4, and only if all three are superior (or two of them by a tremendous degree) will I give a book 5 stars. In The Clockwork Giant, Brooke Johnson has given us a wonderfully intense, gripping story, fascinating characters, and magnificent prose.

I will admit that I found the main character, Petra Wade, irritating at times in her indecisiveness and her tendency to distrust people who didn’t deserve that. But that is a believable part of her character arising from her background. The character is splendidly developed, believable, and mostly likeable, with the unlikeable parts serving to render her more real and true. The story is intense, with plenty of danger, bad breaks, sudden turns, and hopeless fixes. (Someday I would like to write a story this perfect in its timing and flow.) The one thing that could have been better about it was the ending, and yet that sets the stage for a sequel to continue the main story, which I hope that Ms. Johnson will write in a sequel one of these days.

The language is beautifully done, especially for a young adult book. I especially liked Petra’s rather unusual and unique expressions of her passion for Emmerich on a physical level. I mean, it’s not typical for a woman to be aroused by the smell of machine oil. Or at least that has not been my experience, but then, I’ve never met a woman like Petra, so doubtless my experience is inadequate to judge in this instance. The descriptions of working on clockwork mechanisms and the joy that this brought to Petra, as well as her boredom with non-mechanical technology such as steam power, was also well turned.

All in all, I can recommend The Clockwork Giant without reservation.

You can buy the book at Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99, and it’s also available in print for $9.99.

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