Review: SKIES OF FIRE by Zoe Archer
In Short: An inventive Steampunk mythos, a thrilling spy adventure and tempestuous lovers reunited. What more can one ask?
Recommended: Yes! (If you like this sort of thing…)
He hated retreating. The Man O’ War part of him rebelled at the thought alone. He battled to keep down his impulse to fight—a continual struggle, since the telumium implants that had made him into a Man O’ War fed his already strong aggression. Retreat was counterintuitive to men such as he, men who had been transformed into amalgams of flesh and metal.
Short fiction can be a tricky mistress. Telling a complete story, especially when the world in which that story is set needs to be built before us entire, can feel rushed or forced or, at worst, completely unsatisfying, because how can we be expected to care about these characters when we’ve barely even met them?
Also a tricky mistress was British Intelligence operative Louisa Shaw, who had fled the arms of her Naval officer lover Christopher Redmond in fear of too much commitment three years pre-book. With but a few deft strokes of adjective, noun and verb, Archer not only introduces us to these heroic, complicated, destined souls, but also establishes for us their Steampunk idyll, in which a world war is fought in airships powered by the by-product of souped-up cyborgs (of which our hero is one), and the Industrial Revolution runs on clean-burning soy rather than on peasoup-creating coal.
Really, while there is definitely a fun little romance at the heart of this tale – the intrepid Louisa and the powerful Kit overcoming years of misunderstanding and anger and betrayal swiftly, but not too swiftly, the frankness of the couple’s, er, coupling liable to put the more delicate reader to the blush – it is in fact the beautifully drawn details of the backdrop against which it is set that made Skies of Fire absolutely fascinating.
In this version of Earth, a metal known as telumium was discovered and almost immediately became a favorite playing thing for mad geniuses across the known world. One such discovered that telumium, when grafted onto the human skin, would not only enhance the strength of its possessor but also, as an added bonus, generate a form of energy known as “ether” – which of course could be used to power flying war ships! It is not that many years after the creation of these first Man O’ Wars that we encounter Kit, who allowed himself to undergo the painful transformation after a) Louisa left him and b) it was discovered that he possessed that rare kind of “aurora vires” known as Aleph (read: “The Force is strong with this one”) that gives best results to the war effort, and while he and his ilk are not yet ubiquitous among the armed forces, they have already become accepted conveniences of this past modern world.
While there is admittedly some grammatical dissatisfaction to be found in that apparently being their plural (surely “Men O’ War” is more meet?), the creations themselves are utterly, insanely brilliant, showing Archer – along with Nico Rosso, her collaborator on this “novella series” – to have something of the mad genius about her herself. True, comparisons to Maljean Brooks’s 2010 novel The Iron Duke are not unwarranted, as some of the same themes definitely emerge, but on the other hand there is not even a hint of the dreaded “forcible seduction” to be seen here, so on that count alone, its Man O’ Wars for the win. (Though, again… not Men?)
The book’s plot is almost unimportant, given the captivating surroundings it is set in, but in fact Louisa and her Kit’s mission to destroy a secret enemy weapons base (we’re fighting Germany, by the way; or “the Hapsburgs”, at any rate) is actually very gripping all on its own. Black ops shenanigans and martial preparations are skillfully interspersed with all the Will They, Won’t They? – of course they will! In many and varied ways! – and since one of the great virtues of Steampunk as a genre is that it allows for capable, liberated and kickass female protagonists believably set in an historical context, it is a true partnership of Louisa’s audacious spycraft and Christopher’s superhuman strength that resolves things neatly for the good guys… at least, we assume they’re the good guys. The motivations behind the war are all a little unclear, but I think it’s safe to guess that the other side is the aggressor.
In all, a clever, fast-paced addition to the Steampunk oeuvre, and if Rosso’s US-based second installment in the series, Nights of Fire, isn’t quite as accomplished, nor as enjoyable, then at least Archer’s recently-released Skies of Steel returned the Ether Chronicles to this level of awesome, with the inclusion of one of Paranormal Romance’s most unusual heroes: a rogue Russian Man O’ War with a Mohawk! I’ll tell you one thing; The Ether Chronicles certainly keeps you on your toes, trying to figure out who is who and which is which and what social mores prevail in this bizarre, alternative never. Which is exactly what we should expect to come out of the merry mash-up of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Historical Fiction that is Steampunk, long may it reign.
In the Stacks – Steampunk
- Aurororama by Jean-Christophe Valtat
- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
- Skies of Fire by Zoe Archer
- The Girl in the Clockwork Collar by Kady Cross
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