Friday, January 7, 2011

Wild Cards and Iron Horses by Sheryl Nantus

TITLE: Wild Cards and Iron Horses
AUTHOR: Sheryl Nantus
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 78k)
GENRE: Steampunk romance
COST: $5.50

Englishman Jonathan Handleston has come to Prosperity Ridge for a poker tournament he hopes will settle a debt for him. Along the way, however, a delicate spring in his prosthetic brace that allows him the use of his crushed hand breaks, and he’s forced to seek out a skilled – and still private – engineer to fix it. Who he finds is Samantha Weatherly, who’s been fighting every stereotype about what a woman in the West can and cannot do her entire life. When a rival gambler arrives for the tournament, convinced Jon cheats using his prosthetic, the balance Jon strives to keep is threatened. It doesn’t help that Sam threatens his balance, too, albeit in very different ways…

I’m torn on the current steampunk trends in romance. On one hand, I absolutely love steampunk when it’s done well (like The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson or more currently, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker). I love the aesthetic, I love the sense of adventure it always has, I love the way it can often make the most trite clich├ęs sound fresh. On the other hand, I have yet to find a steampunk romance that works on those same levels for me, either in print or in e-books. I keep trying, though, because I want to find one to love so badly. Unfortunately, that search is still going on.

Set in a post-Civil War West, this novel begins with Jonathan’s arrival in Prosperity Ridge, a railroad town designed like a wheel with the train station at its center and the rest radiating from there. Like much of the western world, it suffers from terrible air pollution, a result of the dirty technology that has taken over. Jonathan has come for a poker tournament, the one he hopes will help him finally make enough money to settle a long-standing debt, but the spring that operates the little finger of his prosthetic has broken en route and he needs to get it fixed or risk having to forfeit his place in the game. Without it, he can’t hold his cards properly, and as a man who succeeds based on tells, that’s a must. He ends up directed to Sam Weatherly, the daughter of the best local engineer who has taken over the bulk of her father’s work since he was forced to have his arm amputated after an accident. She’s fascinated by the delicate device and agrees to see what she can do. Thus starts the beginning of their romance.

The world the author creates is fascinating. It’s impossible not to feel the grit Jonathan has to walk through just going down the street, and when he talks about his disability and the device that makes him mobile, you feel the apparatus as if it’s strapped to your own hand. But this is where the story itself falters. The vast majority of the first third (and more than enough later on) is devoted to detailing this world. There are constant explanations on how things work, or background details, or stories about the character’s histories. It drags down the pace considerably, because so little of substance action-wise occurs in between. By the second chapter I was already bored by the minutiae, and it never improved, even when the story itself began to find its legs halfway through. It’s the dilemma I encounter in a lot of the steampunks on the market these days, where the focus is on the setting not the story. That’s not why I read romance, or really, any genre fiction. For me, setting should be dressing, not the substance. The balance between the two in this particular novel is never even close.

The characters are mostly fine. I found Jonathan a tad dry and insipid for my tastes, but Sam is a strong heroine, fighting for her place in a world that wants to shuttle women into more traditional roles. Gil, the young boy who acts as Jonathan’s guide when he arrives, is suitably appealing as well. When he’s on the page, the scene lights up. The romance between Jonathan and Sam crawls along at the same pace as the plot, though, so anyone looking for a strong one will likely be disappointed, and Jon’s motivations for needing to win the tournament were honorable but ultimately underwhelming.

My search for a solid steampunk romance continues. There has to be one out there that has a better balance, but readers who want steampunk primarily for the setting aspects might not have the same difficulties I had.

Readability

7/10 – As long as you really want to know a lot about the world and don’t care about pacing, you should have no problems with this.

Hero

6/10 – A tad dry for my tastes

Heroine

7/10 – Strong and competent

Entertainment value

4/10 – While it does pick up towards the end, so much time is spent on the world-building that I got bored.

World building

9/10 – Where most of the story’s focus lies. Lots of detail here, much of it interesting, but not necessarily presented in the most entertaining manner

TOTAL:

33/50

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