Devon Monk, the author of Dead Iron, is also the author of the Allie Beckstrom urban fantasy series, but you’d never know it if her name wasn’t on the cover. Monk pulls off the impressive feat of creating a wholly distinct voice for her new Age of Steam series.
Here, Monk paints a vivid picture of a gritty, grimy Old West. Like the Beckstrom books, this is set in Oregon, but it’s a very different Oregon. The writing invokes all of the senses, so you can almost smell the metal and oil and blood — and you may find yourself slipping into Old West speech patterns after reading.
Steampunk comes in a wide range of moods, from whimsy to horror. Dead Iron is closer to the horror end of the spectrum. Some scenes are skin-crawlingly disturbing, and you’ll have no trouble hating the cruel, smooth-talking villain.
Other than the fantastically dark mood, the greatest strength of Dead Iron is its characters. This is a largely character-driven novel, with Monk taking us deeply into the minds and lives of the kinds of people who might thrive — or suffer — in a West where magic exists alongside steam technology. Cedar Hunt is a werewolf, haunted by the death of his brother. Mae Lindson is a witch whose magic always twists itself into something dark, even when she means well. Rose Small is a shopkeeper’s adopted daughter with a mechanical bent; she dreams of becoming a deviser and making fantastic objects. All three face prejudice in the isolated town of Hallelujah: Cedar because he’s a loner, Mae because she married a black man (and later because of her powers), and Rose because she doesn’t behave as a young lady is supposed to. These three are arrayed against the sinister Shard LeFel and his ghastly assistant, Shunt. Also in the mix are the enigmatic and highly entertaining Madder brothers, whose intentions are at first not clear to the reader, and who still have mysteries yet to explore in future books.
The plot is pretty straightforward; LeFel races against time to perform a terrible ritual, while the white hats (after hesitantly becoming friends with one another) race against time to stop him. For the characters, the plot moves quickly and takes place over just a few short days; for the reader, it can be a little slow since Monk pauses frequently for character study. The character study is so good, though, that it’s hard to object.
The Age of Steam series presents a dark, fascinating world and a cast of unforgettable characters whose next adventure I can’t wait to read. If you’re a reader who loves character-driven stories and are interested in the creepier side of steampunk, definitely give Dead Iron a try.