Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brass and Bone by Cynthia Gael

TITLE: Brass and Bone
AUTHOR: Cynthia Gael
PUBLISHER: Carina Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 36k)
GENRE: Steampunk paranormal
COST: $3.59

Lady Abigail and her partner Simon are called upon an old friend of hers for a very delicate job. He needs her to take cargo across the globe on her airship, with the witch he’s captured as part of the magical lock that will seal it forever. There’s a lot of money involved, too much to resist, but Simon thinks the witch’s keeper – her ex-lover – is too cavalier and dangerous about this entire mission…

The more published steampunk I read, the more I wonder what the big deal is. Because if these are the best the genre has to offer – and it seems everybody across the internet proclaims steampunk as the next big thing by begging for more – then I really have to ask just how awful the stories are that don’t manage to get published. Because this novella I recently finished just doesn’t cut it.

It starts out well enough. Simon and his partner Abigail rob a man of a device, having been hired to steal and deliver it for a hefty sum. Things go mildly awry when Simon is poisoned by the thing, but he is treated in time to suffer no long-term damage. He finds out the next morning that they are traveling to see an old friend of hers, a man he can’t stand, because he was both the one that hired them for this particular job and is in need for more work, something he says only Abigail can do. Once they get there, they discover they are to transport something to Australia, where it will be locked away forever using the combined blood of a witch and a human. He has a witch on hand, a French woman named Cynara, but she is treated as more of a thing and prisoner than a person. He’s sending along a keeper, the man who was Cynara’s lover before he turned her over to this group of Witchfinders, and so the four set out on this around the world journey.

If this sounds interesting, don’t be fooled. It’s a muddle and turns even more tedious after they actually leave. The story is riddled with so many weaknesses, it’s difficult to pinpoint just which holds it back the most. First of all, the author chooses to write it in alternating 1st person POVs – Simon’s (the male half of the airship pair) and Cynara’s (the female witch half of the paranormal pair). I normally love 1st person, but I find it much more difficult to switch between two within the same story, especially from chapter to chapter. It erases the deep perspective 1st person creates, and forces the reader to start over again with a character from scratch. Don’t get me wrong. It can be done, but it requires top notch writing and voices to truly pull it off. That doesn’t happen here. Instead, we only get one decent voice – Simon’s. When it switches to Cynara, the entire story gets thrown into confusion, largely because much of what happens in her POV is told instead of shown, and the world-building explaining the magical/paranormal aspects of the story is some of the sketchiest I’ve read in a while.

The telling vs. showing is a problem that runs throughout the entire story, though. For too much of it, it reads like a summary of a much longer work, skipping over what felt like should have been crucial events, skimping on the details on too many things. Characterizations suffer as a result. The only one who felt fully well-rounded and real to me was Simon. Cynara falls short on believable motivations or interest, her keeper Henri is too secretive to be anything but frustrating, and Abigail is put on a pedestal by Simon. The only aspects of the story that seem to get a good balance of loving detail are the steampunk gadgets. Abigail’s airship alone merits nearly 500 words of description, just so “you may visualize it when I discuss such aeronautical locations as the bridge, engine room, galley, hold and so forth.”

Here stems the roots from which my problems with most of the steampunk stories I read grow. I buy a genre book to read a story and be entertained in some fashion, not to be regaled with the author’s imagined gadgetry that seems to fit into this new world. Ultimately, I still need to experience an actual story, and I mean experience it, not told it. Too often, that feels like it gets forgotten, in favor of lavishing all this attention on the elements of a steampunk world. World-building is fantastic, but not the sole purpose.

Though it doesn’t say so on the site, this novella has to be the first in a series, because the conclusion is very open-ended, with nothing actually resolved. It’s just as dissatisfying as the rest of the story, but I won’t be bothering with any more that might come along. I’ve read enough of this author’s voice to know this style is just not for me.


6/10 – Alternating 1st person POVs with lots of telling makes this very tedious to get through


5/10 – Simon fares the best, but the rest of them come off as vague or caricatures


5/10 – Incomplete since it’s clearly meant to be part of a series, with little sense of flow

Entertainment value

3/10 – Started off well, but the disjointedness of the plot as well as too much tell rather than show turns this into a slog

World building

6/10 – The steampunk aspects are all right, but everything on the paranormal side leaves a lot to be desired



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