Dead Iron: The Age of Steam (Cedar Hunt)
by Devon Monk
Cover Artist: Cliff Nielson
Review by Drew Bittner
Roc Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451463968
Date: 05 July 2011 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Mae Lindson is a widow thrice over, whose true love will not rest easy in his grave.
And Shard LeFel is a wealthy railroad magnate racing the clock to save his own despicable existence, no matter who pays the price.
In Hallelujah, Oregon, there's going to be a reckoning...
In Dead Iron, the first Age of Steam novel by Devon Monk, Cedar Hunt is living his life and enduring his curse--lycanthropy--bereft of everything that once gave it meaning: scholarship, love, and the presence of his brother. His tenuous existence is disrupted by the railroad coming to the nearby town of Hallelujah, and the presence of that railroad's builder, Shard LeFel.
LeFel may seem to be an American aristocrat, well-dressed and well-heeled, but he's actually serving an exile of sorts with a very definite time limit. Unless he can prise open a doorway, sacrificing three lives in order to do so, his extremely long life will end. To prevent this, he tasks his inhuman servant Mr. Shunt with acquiring the specific lives he needs: a child, a cursed man and a witch.
Fortunately for LeFel, all three can be found in Hallelujah. First, a blacksmith's son is taken from his bedroom. The monstrous crime spurs Cedar to offer his services to the grief-stricken father, setting him on LeFel's trail. Almost immediately after, the widow Lindson asks him to find the murderer of her husband, whom her uncanny abilities tell her has been murdered not for a second but, incredibly, a third time. The love between them will not let him rest in peace, and she will see his murderer pay in blood.
At the same time, LeFel must face the obstacle presented by the three Madder brothers, who are miners and "devisers" (steampunk engineers) of extraordinary skill and surprising depths. The Madders have recruited Cedar (somewhat against his will) into their private battle with LeFel, giving him a very useful talisman as a partial payment. Cedar is also tasked with finding the Holder, an arcane device that will hold open the door LeFel needs to use. Of course, the Madders don't know exactly where the Holder is...
Amid the action is Rose Small, a girl who yearns to leave the small wilderness town and create amazing engines, see the world and have adventures. Unfortunately for her, her repressive foster parents and the hidebound, intolerant townsfolk--not to mention a brutish lout--feel it would be better if she were wedded (against her will) and settled down as soon as possible.
The designs of these parties bring them into inevitable collision, as Cedar makes some surprising discoveries, Mae summons powers beyond anything she has ever attempted in the name of love and revenge, and Rose rises to the occasion not once but repeatedly. The heroes must act quickly, however, as LeFel's schemes (backed by Shunt's horrific capabilities) are coming to a head and three lives are on the line.
Devon Monk should be familiar to readers from her ongoing Allie Beckstrom series of urban fantasy novels. This is a radical departure from those, however, creating an American West peopled by strange beings (including some referred to as "the Strange"--apparently insubstantial figures of terror who are somehow gaining physical form) and weird technology. It's a steampunk Western, though not with cowboys and Indians; instead, it's a small town drama, playing out against the fears, prejudices and hatreds of small-minded and parochial folk threatened by an evil they cannot comprehend, defended by heroes they despise.
Each character has hurdles, of course, to be overcome. Monk doesn't make any of these easy. Cedar Hunt has to grapple with the guilt of killing his brother, as well as the pain of the losses he suffered; he's retreated from the world, surfacing only to take work as a bounty hunter (turns out his wolfish senses are a big asset there). Rose Small is the foundling grown up, whose wild ways and desires are incomprehensible to her church-going mother and the old hens who rule Hallelujah's society. And Mae Lindson is a blonde and blue-eyed woman married to a dark-skinned husband, causing her to be shunned (except for the exceptional lace she makes for the town's women), whose secret skills of witchcraft are tainted by her skill at cursing.
The story rockets along, propelled by LeFel's urgent timetable. He has very little time and lots to accomplish, all in expectation of a return to power and the settling of some ancient scores. If he succeeds, the Earth itself will suffer horribly; Monk makes it clear that LeFel's victory is definitely our loss.
With the groundwork well laid for continuing adventures, it is clear that Monk has another very successful series on her hands--one that breaks new ground, even in the burgeoning steampunk genre, and offers readers a great new adventure to follow.