J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: Steampunk superheroes! aka, Power Under Pressure.

Last night, I finished another book. It was Power Under Pressure, by Andrew P. Mayer.

What a sexy cover, even if there’s little context.

This is a slightly different book review, as it’s covering the last part of a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. This is just because I’ve read the first two, and wanted to finish it. I actually did review the first two, but I did so on Amazon. Just to be a completionist, I’ll post reviews of book 1 (The Falling Machine) and 2 (Hearts of Smoke and Steam) here as well.

Amazon review for The Falling Machine:

I’ll be honest. I didn’t research this book before I bought it. I knew nothing of the author, or the plot, or any other significant details. I picked it up on a whim on my last visit to the bookstore. And somehow, it turned out to be one of the better novels I’ve read this year.

The story goes like this (spoiler free!): Sarah Stanton, daughter of one of the leaders of the Paragons, a group of heroes that protect New York City, witnesses the murder of one of the founders of the same group, and becomes embroiled in a large scale plot that deals with themes of betrayal, aging, and the advent of technology, and the dangers and wonders that come with it. Also, last but not least, it muses on what really makes a hero, beyond a mask and fancy leather costume. The story manages to be easy to follow and fun, while addressing topics that can get pretty heavy.

This is one of the best concepts for a steampunk novel I’ve ever seen. I’ve always wanted to like this genre more than the novels I’ve read in it have allowed me to. But too many of them get caught up in reveling in their own creativity, wanting to put their ideas for cool, weird technology in the forefront and putting character development and story into the proverbial caboose.

But this novel never falls into that trap. It’s tight, consistent, and uses the setting and genre as frosting on the cake. The focus is always on the story, which never really has a slow point that made me want to stop reading. That’s when you know you have a good novel on your hands.

Seriously. If you’ve wanted to like Steampunk, enjoy the idea of superheroes in the 1880s, or just love a novel with vivid characters and a beautiful, creative world, get this book.

You’ll be glad you did. Now to wait until November to read the second one…

Amazon review for Hearts of Smoke and Steam:

This book was very good, very brisk, and the definition of a page turner.

Storyline details (as spoiler free as I can manage, anyway): Sarah Stanton, our intrepid heroine who we last saw running from the scene of a battle that claimed the “life” of Tom the automaton, has discovered that being a hero is a dash of excitement, and a lot of boredom as she scrapes out a living working in a department store, rather than crawling back to her father. She waits for the right chance to put Tom back together, holding onto both The Alpha Element she recieved from the late genius Sir Darby, and the heart of the automaton. Problem is, the Children of Eschaton also want this heart for their own sinister purposes. But she finds new friends to help her along the way to replace her fallen comrades from the first book. Regardless, it won’t be easy…

The author has a remarkable ability of really making the narrative and dialogue to really sound like a period piece. Of course, none of us reading this book can say for sure whether or not it’s really accurate to the speech of the 1800s, but as an English major who’s waded through many a piece of stuffy prose in my time, I can vouch that he mimics it very well, except for one small detail: it’s fun. There are more superheroes, and supervillains with strange powers and gimmicks that hearken back to simpler ages of comic books, with a man dressed as Anubis and street thugs obsessed with using knives to the point of being comparable to Mr. Zsasz from Batman comics. And of course, no story like this is complete without a genocidal villain who is delightfully mad. There’s little traces of subtlety to the writer’s moral divisions in this book, but that can be forgiven, I think, given the style in which it’s written. The back of the book’s cover compares it to “Gangs of New York if it were written by Jules Verne instead of Scorcese”, and I think that’s a very crude, but accurate assessment of the writer’s vision.

It’s one of the most engaging steampunk styled stories I’ve read, and I’ve gone through quite a few. That being said, this book isn’t perfect.

– One of my favorite parts of the original book was how it didn’t get caught up too much of how clever some of the technology designs were. Unfortunately, due to the trappings of the plot of this middle book, there’s no avoiding some of this technological exposition in this book. Just a pet peeve of mine, really. It’s still not half as bad as some other books I’ve read in the same vein.

– Being a middle book means it’s hit or miss. Sure, middle parts of stories have given us stuff like “The Empire Strikes Back” before, but at other times we can be stuck with a story that just sort of arbitrarily ends. The climax is quite good, but the book basically ends at a spot that feels more like the end of a chapter rather than the end of a book. Just kind of abrupt. If you’re reading just for the journey, though, moreso than the end, don’t sweat this so much.

All in all, a great sophomore effort, and I feel that Mayer is definitely one of the more underrated authors that deserves many many more readers. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll enjoy this one too.

Suffice to say, I really liked the first two. I feel like the Steampunk genre has some of the coolest concepts, but the worst execution of any genre of writing out there. So any time I find a book that doesn’t completely suck while giving me a steampunk fix, I kind of get starry eyed. In retrospect, I’m not sure if The Falling Machine deserved five stars on its own merits. But compared to other books in the same genre, it definitely deserves 5 stars.

But of course, in a trilogy, a third book has to be really good to make you feel like you haven’t been wasting your time. It has to wrap up several plot lines, and give you a feeling of satisfaction. Did this book make the cut? Well, let’s see.

Logline: Steampunk superheroes* in Victorian-era New York!
The Society of Paragons is gone-destroyed from within by traitors and enemies. With the death of The Industrialist and the rebirth the Iron-Clad as a monstrous half-human creature known as “The Shell,” Lord Eschaton now has almost everything he needs to cover the world in fortified smoke and rebuild it in his image-everything except for the mechanical heart of the Automaton. The device is nearer than he knows. Just across the East River, hiding in a Brooklyn Junkyard, Sarah Stanton is trying to come to restore the mechanical man to life. But before she can rebuild her friend, she must first discover the indomitable power of her own heart and save herself. Only then will she be able to forge a ragtag group of repentant villains, damaged Paragons, and love-mad geniuses into the team of heroes known as “The Society of Steam.”

*I took the liberty of correcting this typo from Amazon. Sloppy!

What I liked:

The writing style. Mayer has this nuanced way of making his writing style feel old. I mean that in a good way, though. He uses slightly anachronistic phrases in a style that sort of reminds me of Jules Verne. It just makes it feel like the novel was written circa 1880, instead of 2013. One thing I really, really like is how he’s not afraid to include certain prejudices of the day, such as racism and sexism. You can easily argue that the latter is one of the major triggers for the plot of the trilogy, given that so many of the conflicts are started by the Paragons not listening to Sarah because she is a girl, and thus has no clue how the real world works, in their view.

The concept is still super cool. Yes, this book’s major thing is that it’s centered around a group of superheroes. Or at least, the plot was framed around them in the first book. But it does more than that. The whole narrative is framed like a comic book. There are villains with funny names and origins, wannabe heroes, and the crazy sense of wonder that a good comic story can bring. A side effect, unfortunately, is that that also means that anyone who is not a hero or a villain just seems like cannon fodder.

The main character. I don’t think I’d like this trilogy half as much without Sarah Stanton. She’s such an adorable, yet strong character. Think Elizabeth Bennett, if the main character in Pride and Prejudice actually got to go out and shoot bad guys now and then. She’s just very likable, and you can’t help but root for her even when she’s up against seemingly impossible odds.

What I didn’t like:

A lot of the really interesting characters are dead. I’ll say this for Mayer: He has no problems killing off a character, if he feels the story demands it. The problem is that so many of those characters are cool and interesting, and he leaves behind the ones that aren’t quite as good to actually live out the rest of the story. Call it the Rhaegar Targaryen effect, if you will: If all of the characters you read keep referring to a deceased character and how awesome he was (Like Sir Darby in this book), it leaves you wanting to read a book about THEM, and not the characters you’re reading about now. If Mayer revisits this wonderful universe of his, I’d be much more excited to read a prequel featuring the Paragons at the height of their power, rather than the ragtag Society of Steam that is assembled at the end of this book.

Viola. Just… Viola. Emilio the acrobatic Italian inventor is a great character, and a fun love interest for Sarah. His sister, however, is flat out awful. In book 2, she was a nice enough character, being that kind of type A overbearing personality that is street smart enough to keep her beloved brother safe and in check. After an accident in the climax of that book that scars her face, though, we meet her in book 3 as an embittered sociopath that actually turns against her brother and all of the people she cares about for no other reason than that she’s not pretty anymore, and she blames them for her fate. She actually considers murdering Emilio at one point. I think that’s where I lost all sympathy for her. And when Tom and Emilio spare her life, despite trying to destroy them both, she comes back again, as a villain.

I think she’s up there with River Song from Doctor Who as unbearably annoying female characters of recent years. I just couldn’t stand her at all, which is saying something since I liked her in book 2.

Every character looks weak. Somehow, just about every character in this book ends up looking weak and inept in a fight. The heroes, the villains, everyone. Tom the automaton, despite getting the focus as a major character a plot point, loses every single conflict he runs into. Every. Single. One. Nathaniel, despite getting major changes in this book that makes him super powerful, still gets stomped around. Even the main bad guy, Eschaton, is made to look weak.

It’s just… bizarre. I’m not even sure how that’s possible, to be honest. Just a weird thing. I like my badass characters, I guess.

Anyhow, this book earns a *** rating from me. It’s good, but hardly great. Which is a shame, because I thought The Falling Machine was just brilliant. But if you keep killing off your cool characters, and leave us with stuff like Viola, your story is going to suffer a bit. And so it did.

That being said, it is still up there as one of the best steampunk series that you can read, right alongside Cherie Priest’s work. If you like this genre, I’d still suggest checking it out. Just temper your expectations.

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