Right now it’s about eighty-five degrees at my house, and there is a mockingbird singing somewhere outside, but the trek through the blizzard that opens Cold Copper, the third book in Devon Monk’s Age of Steam series, is so compelling that I feel like I’m walking through the snow with Cedar Hunt.
This series continues to thrill with the third installment.
Cedar Hunt is a bounty hunter. He was cursed by a Pawnee god; during the full moon he becomes a wolf. His brother Wil shares a similar curse, as a wolf who regains human form rarely. The god commanded them to hunt and eradicate the Strange, beings that travel here from another realm. We might call the Strange fairies.
Together with Mae Rowen, a witch; Rose Small, an orphan with strange abilities of her own; Sophie Dupius, a Strange-hunter; and the three enigmatic Madder brothers, Cedar searches for the seven pieces of the Holder, an otherworldly magical implement. If left alone, or fallen into the wrong hands, the Holder will wreak unimaginable evil in the world. They have regained two pieces of the Holder and are seeking the third when the Madder brothers, after a serious argument, end up diverting the group to Des Moines, Iowa, in the middle of a snow storm. This involves a mad wagon-turned-sleigh ride down a frozen river.
The Madder brothers, Alun, Bran and Cadoc, live among mortals as mechanical inventors or “devicers”, but they are really knights, agents of a king from the other realm, charged to return the Holder. They are cryptic, brilliant, high-handed and at least partly insane, and I perk up whenever I see one of their names on a page because I know they will do something infuriating and wonderful. It was a treat to have them play a larger role in this book, and to learn a little bit more about them.
The Madder brothers do not want to go to Des Moines, but at least two of the trio feel honor-bound to do so. Having imposed a geas on Cedar to help them recover the Holder, they are now forced to accept one themselves. In the thriving new city, the brothers meet an old adversary, Killian Vosbrough. Vosbrough is the mayor, and one of a powerful and wealthy family of “glim” traders (glim is the etheric material, harvested at high altitudes by airships, that fuels most magic and powers the “matics,” or automated devices of this world). The Vosbrough clan will do whatever it takes to get power, and the Madders have crossed paths with them before.
West of Des Moines, Rose Small has quarreled with the airship captain Lee Hink and is on her way east via train. To her annoyance, so is Hink. Monk introduces another character, the polite and bookish Thomas Wicks, who is very interested in Rose. Once they are on the train Wicks drops his straight-laced manner and invites Rose to investigate some interesting boxes in the freight car. The casks are marked with the letters VB. Rose discovers a strange apparatus that she senses magically, just before they are attacked by three men.
Cold Copper alternates between the train adventure and strange doings in Des Moines, including a curious imp-like creature of the Strange that seems to be haunting Cedar, and a frightening number of missing children. Cedar tries to fulfill his oath to the brothers by searching for the piece of the Holder, but also looks for the missing children. Although he does not see the Strange, he hears them. He hears them weeping, something we’ve never heard them do before.
Monk changes things up in this book. All along, I was pretty sure that the Strange, creatures from the other realms who have made their way here, were, if not outright evil, at least not something that would engage my sympathy. I was wrong. The Strange are being just as badly treated as the missing human children. Rose’s abilities have changed as the result of her connection to the Holder; she now connects to metal and devices as if they were alive. Near the end of this book, she uncovers the secret of her parentage and her gifts. This was not a surprise but it was gracefully done. Of course the missing children, the weeping Strange and the strange matic device Rose found on the train all converge at the end of the story.
I thought the quarrel between Hink and Rose at the beginning was a bit contrived, but the action soon swept me past that quibble. It also served its purpose, introducing Wicks into the mix (rhyme not intended, sorry).
The stakes are high in Cold Copper, since almost everyone is at risk of death at almost every moment. Vosbrough is a powerful villain. As mayor, he has not only magic but the legal system at his command. It is hard to tell who is an enemy and who is an ally; Thomas Wicks, for instance, brings his own share of secrets. The most frightening thing, though, is something that happens to Cedar early in the book, something that, because of magic, he does not remember, but we do.
The story advances, the tension mounts; we see a little more of this world and the blend of magic and high technology; our perceptions about some things are changed. At the end of the book Cedar is still in danger and doesn’t even know it.
Along the way we are treated to strong dialogue, clever banter, and fine descriptions of landscape. Monk has an eye for scenery, both natural and city, and it shows here. Things have gotten more complex. Cold Copper satisfies, and sets the stage for the rest of the series.