Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review: For Steam and Country by Jon del Arroz



A couple of weeks ago, I took my 12-year-old daughter to the town library in search of something to read. When I asked the librarian in charge of the YA section to recommend something without suicide or sex, she said, without hostility but quite firmly that we were in the wrong section. Apparently those were the predominant themes of modern YA literature. (Mind you, this is the stuff offered to them as pleasure reading, in addition to the doom-and-gloom highbrow literature they're already required to read for school.) And then we wonder why so many of today's teens are A. depressed and B. avoid pleasure reading at all costs.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I report on this latest offering from a science fiction author Jon del Arroz. For Steam and Country is, as the title implies, a steampunk adventure first and foremost, but it also succeeds brilliantly as YA.

The protagonist, Zaira von Monocle, is a 16-year-old, who--shocker!--actually behaves as a normal teen, even though the circumstances of her life are anything but ordinary. Sure, she is a daughter of a great adventurer, who inherits her father's airship and goes off to far away lands and gets involved in battles that might decide the fate of her country. Yet at the same time she is subject to the same challenges and emotions as any teen. She has a secret crush on a neighbor boy who, frustratingly, only sees her as a friend. She feels sad about having lost her mother at a young age and devastated at the news that her father is presumed dead. She has a comically adorable attachment to her pet ferret (yes, there's a ferret named Toby, and he's important to the plot!). And, as most teenagers, she has her flaws: she is stubborn, occasionally rash, doesn't know her limitations while at the same time being insecure... Did I mention the "normal teen" thing? If you don't have teens of your own, just take my word for it. Zaira is true to life, perhaps more so than the cynical and too-smart-for-their-age creatures that populate modern YA fiction, especially the kind geared towards girls.

That's not to say Zaira is the only interesting character, or even the only one in whom the reader gets invested during the story. James starts out as a somewhat of an obligatory sidekick/love interest, but his story arc is separate and, while he doesn't get a lot of "screen time," is interesting in its own right. (I am in fact hoping for a spinoff because the whole Knights angle has a lot of potential that was only explored in a cursory way in this novel). Captain von Cravat is more than your garden variety Strong Female Character. The Iron Emperor is a fascinating villain who appears just long enough for us to wonder who or what exactly he is. And Toby the ferret is just begging for a whole series of his own, if he could ever be convinced to leave Zaira's side.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and the prose is just right for the type of story this is: clear without being dumbed down, with enough information on the world and the basics of technology to be interesting, but not so much that we get bored with the minutia of the steamship operations. The battles are well choreographed and descriptive in a way that we can visualize exactly what's going on while providing enough tension and excitement. There are a few twists along the way as well as some loose ends likely to be addressed in the rest of the series, but on the whole the story wraps up in a satisfying way.

I'm told that this particular take on steampunk is unusual, so I will simply recommend it to anyone who likes old-fashioned adventure free of sex, graphic violence or so-called "social commentary." It's also a great way to introduce your teenager to the joys of adventure fiction. As someone who grew up reading Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, I am glad to see that there are modern offerings in the same vein available to the new generation, even if they have to go beyond the local librarians' choices to get to it.

Purchase For Steam and Country on Amazon