book reviews by Althea

The Mechanist – Erik Nelson Robert ***

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I got this book through the First Reads Giveaway.

I think this book has the potential to be one of the better books I’ve read in the steampunk genre. However – it’s not quite finished.
It starts rather awkwardly, to the point where, on the first page, I almost felt like, “oh no, what have I gotten myself into?” However, as it goes along, the writing gets a lot smoother, and as the characters develop and the plot develops, I found myself liking the book quite a lot.
However, due to the writing’s uneven quality, I strongly felt like this was a first draft – like the author got to the end of the story and said, “Woo-hoo! I’m done! Off to the printer with you, book!” From a copy-editor’s perspective, I had four problems with the first paragraph. To me, that says that no one even read over the manuscript before it went to print. It’s also going to turn off anyone at a publisher who’s looking at this – which is a shame, because this is really A GOOD BOOK!

First paragraph:
“Essie Gray crouched beside a ruined rise of stone steps. Mortar crumbled from beneath the weather-cracked stones and dissolved into fine powder. Had the street lamps been lit – as they hadn’t been in living memory – they’d have illuminated nothing but great glowing orbs of mist and fog in the night. Instead, the only light filtering down to the street through the overcast sky came from the waning gibbous moon above. That modest lizght glinted wanly off the slick cobbled streets.”

OK, the main problem here is time.
#1. The mortar has probably been crumbling and gradually dissolving into powder for decades. Essie is “crouching” NOW. This creates an instant disconnect as to how the reader is supposed to be viewing the scene. How about keeping the whole thing current? Maybe have her descending the steps, and the dust crumbling out as her feet shift the loose stones?
#2. If the street lamps haven’t been lit in “living memory,” Essie’s probably not THINKING about how they’re not lit, or what she would see if they were. Skip what we’re not seeing, and tell us just what we DO see. The moonlight can illuminate the broken globes of the streetlights.
#3. If it’s that misty, foggy, and overcast, can we really tell that the moon is “waning gibbous”? That’s awfully specific.
#4. Typo! “lizght” – OK – these happen! But in the first paragraph? Again, this says, “no one proofread this manuscript.”

It also needs a general going-over, overall, just for small things. The number of sentence fragments interrupts the flow of the writing at points, and then there are nitpicky (but important) things like the differences between “leeching”/”leaching” and “taking the piss” vs. “pissing someone off.” There’s an overuse of the word “brutes,” and places where a better word choice could really make things snap – for example, on page 13 a place is a haven for “crooks, criminals and thieves.” Those are all synonyms. How about “a haven for pickpockets, bully-boys and flesh-mongers?”

I’m not usually (if ever) so specific in a review. I’m saying this because I really feel that if a professional editor revised this manuscript, there is absolutely no reason that it shouldn’t be picked up by a major publisher. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a self-published novel before. It’s better than some books that have already been published by the mainstream SF press this year.

The characters are engaging and colorful, and the mystery/adventure plot is well-crafted, suspenseful and action-filled. The setting is vague-but-evocative. (An alternate England after a WWI that turned out differently?) It’s a well-realized and original world which really captures the underground, DIY, gritty aspect of steampunk – it follows from the cyberpunk aesthetic, exploring nightlife, marginalization and subcultures, unlike some newer ‘steampunk’ books that are just like, “well, let’s make it vaguely old-timey, and then throw in an automaton.” Nope. Essie is a worthy steampunk counterpoint to cyberpunk’s bad-ass hackers – she’s a mechanist hacker, always tinkering with parts, smart, talented, on the wrong side of the law in order to survive, kicking ass on her motorcycle and doing what needs to be done.

I’d recommend this to fans of Cherie Priest’s ‘Boneshaker.’


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