Book Review

Book Review: Iron Sky: Dread Eagle by Alex Woolf.

IronSkyThe year is 1845. Since Napoleon’s famous victory at Waterloo, France and Britain have been locked in a long and bloody war for global supremacy. This breathtaking steampunk adventure introduces an alternative 19th century of giant airships soaring through the skies above the English Channel, fantastical, steam-powered automata, aerial steam carriages, floating cities, giant mechanical birds and a new kind of secret agent. Enter the world of Iron Sky…

In this version of reality, an ageing Napoleon is threatening a full-scale invasion of Britain. Opposing him is Sir George Jarrett, head of the Imperial British Secret Service, helped by an all-female team of aerial spies known as the Sky Sisters. The youngest of them is Lady Arabella West. As war clouds loom, airships start to disappear, and rumours spread of a mysterious terror in the skies. Arabella, with the help of her automaton sidekick, Miles, sets out to investigate.

I haven’t read many steampunk books, but those that I have read have been brilliant. When I heard about this new book coming from Alex Woolf I had high hopes, I’d enjoyed everything else of his I’d read and had a feeling that this book was going to be pretty great.

The story takes place over only a short period of time with the bulk of the book occuring in just 3 days. This works really well, keeping the action going and adding a sense of immediacy to the book. After a brief prologue that roots the book firmly into its historical context the plot gets going very quickly. We meet Arabella, our leading lady, as she undertakes a mission in her role as one of the aerial spies Britain is using in its efforts to defeat Napoleon’s efforts to invade once and for all. From the very first pages Arabella’s story is filled with action, this continues throughout much of the book. Whether she is trying to break in to somewhere to acquire information, or lead a reconnaissance mission she has a knack both for getting into and back out of trouble.

Like many reviewers I’m always on the lookout for really great female lead characters. Arabella is most certainly this, and the fact she is one of the Sky Sisters – 5 female aerial spies each with their very own highly specialised skill set was a most welcome discovery. It made me think of two other books I’ve loved in recent years, Code Name Verity and The Beauty Chorus. Whilst all three books feature teams of young women flying planes as part of military efforts they’re all then incredibly different, but I was pleased with the realisation.

In addition to loving Arabella I completely fell for automaton Miles (a Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum). I think I’d like my only Miles, his ability to analyse situations instantly and tell you just how bad your plan is would certainly be useful! The other character that really stands out in the book is Commodus Bane. He’s just so completely and utterly awful, I found him really disturbing and found myself trying to hold the book a little further away when he appeared on the pages!

This is a very attractive book. It’s a hardback book with beautiful end pages, a map (I do love a book with a map) and four double-sided glossy gatefold pages covered in design illustrations (for more about how Alex came up with the various airships and other devices make sure you read his brilliant guest post here). It’s clear that a lot of care and attention has been put into this book’s creation and it’s certainly paid off.

My only sadness about this book is that ends just as another really exciting mission is being launched. I’m assuming that this means this isn’t the last we’re seeing of the Sky Sisters, I can’t wait to be able to read more about their adventures!

Iron Sky: Dread Eagle is published by Scribo Books in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Blog Tour

Blog Tour: Guest Post by Alex Woolf on the steampunk technology in Iron Sky: Dread Eagle.

IronSky

I’m so excited to be welcoming Alex Woolf to my blog today as part of the tour for his new book Iron Sky: Dread Eagle. The rich steampunk world he has created is wonderful, I was really pleased when he agreed to write about how he went about this process. Over to you Alex!

As a child I was fascinated by technology – not exactly by how it worked, or else I might have become an engineer rather than a writer, but more by the way it looked, sounded and smelled. To this day, I still find few sights or sounds more entrancing than the interior of a traditional watch, with all its tiny cogs, gears and springs working together in perfect coordination. And for excitement, nothing can beat a working steam engine with its spinning shafts and terrifying pistons pumping away amid all that heat and steam.

I especially loved the extravagantly inefficient machines of Heath Robinson cartoons, with their many complex moving parts producing something very simple. One of my favourite scenes in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the one featuring Professor Caractacus Potts’ absurdly over-complicated breakfast-making machine.

I must have been a steampunk fan before I even realised it, because these machines are the essence of the genre. What a steampunk machine looks like is ultimately much more important than what it does. It should be extravagant, ingenious and gloriously impractical.

This was my starting point when developing the technology for my steampunk fantasy, Iron Sky: Dread Eagle. Take the eponymous ‘dread eagle’ itself. It’s a steam-powered, steel-feathered flying machine that looks like a giant bird of prey. There is nothing remotely practical or airworthy about it, but in the steampunk world it inhabits, it glides, it soars, it captures airships in its talons, shoots fire from its beak and terrifies all who behold it.

One of the gatefold illustrations from Iron Sky: Dread Eagle showing the Tirailleur-Class Airship. (click to embiggen)
One of the gatefold illustrations from Iron Sky: Dread Eagle showing the Tirailleur-Class Airship. (click to embiggen)

A machine like the dread eagle is pure fantasy. Because I know that nothing like that could ever exist on Earth, I could play fast and loose with the physics. Other pieces of tech featured in the book are more rooted in reality, while retaining the baroque steampunk look. For example, I had to develop a line of military airships and planes used to fight the war that forms the backdrop to the Iron Sky series. For these ‘aerial steam carriages’ and dirigibles, I’ve stuck pretty close to the actual technology of the 1910s and 1920s, except that the machines are steam- or wind-powered. And of course they look beautiful, with an ornate and slightly gothic Victorian appearance rather than the more streamlined, art deco style of the early 20th century.

The series is set in an alternative 1845. Thirty years earlier, Napoleon unexpectedly won the Battle of Waterloo, and since then Britain and France have been slugging it out for global supremacy. As a result of all this war, technology has boomed and they’ve reached about 1920 or so in terms of technological development – with a few differences. For example, instead of radio waves they’ve discovered this mysterious, invisible fluid called the aether, which allows them long-distance communication.

The aether was a popular theory in Victorian times, and has become a bit of a staple among steampunk writers. The Victorians believed that all the energies and forces we observe, including light, gravity and magnetism, operate within this subtle and universal medium, which they called the luminiferous aether. In my world the aether is much more than a theory: it’s a practical workaday reality. They’ve developed aethercells, which are like radio transmitter-receivers, and ANODE (AetherNet Object Detection Echo) systems instead of radar.

But the aether is useful for much more than communication and detection, as they’re beginning to discover. The French have developed the Aetheric Shield, a device that operates like an invisible forcefield, rendering any airship wearing it invincible, and this is threatening to tip the balance in the long-running war.

Another of the gatefold illustrations from Iron Sky: Dread Eagle showing the Tirailleur-Class Airship. (click to embiggen)
Another of the gatefold illustrations from Iron Sky: Dread Eagle showing the Tirailleur-Class Airship. (click to embiggen)

No steampunk fantasy would be complete without an automaton, and in Iron Sky we have Miles, the Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum. Miles is a three-foot-high metal gentleman, steam-powered of course, and dressed immaculately in frock coat and top hat. A tiny chimney in his hat releases steam (and is useful for me as a writer as a means of expressing his emotions – ‘puffing anxiously’ for example). Miles is the sidekick of our aviator-heroine Lady Arabella West, and he tends to be pessimistic (he would
say ‘logical’) about their chances of survival at any given moment. Apart from his superb analytical engine brain, he has a few hidden accessories, which are gradually revealed as the story progresses. I won’t say what they are, but they do prove useful in getting Arabella out of a number of scrapes.

Whether any of the machines I’ve created for Iron Sky could ever work in practical terms is beside the point. In fact it’s probably better if they couldn’t, because steampunk is not about efficiency or practicality – it’s the very opposite of all that. Steampunk is about the enjoyment of technology for its own sake – the crazier and more spectacular the better. The sense of wonder I experienced as a child at the sight and sound of intricate clocks and infernal engines. That’s steampunk – and that’s what I’ve tried to recreate in this book.

Thank you Alex for such a wonderfully interesting post! I’ll be posting my review of Iron Sky: Dread Eagle later today so do make sure you pop back and read it.

Book Review

Book Review : Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

Two opposing forces are on the brink of war. The Clankers – who put their faith in machinery – and the Darwinists – who have begun evolving living creatures into tools. Prince Aleksandar, the would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, comes from a family of Clankers, and travels the country in a walker, a heavily-fortified tank on legs. Meanwhile Deryn Sharp, a girl disguised as a boy, works for the British Empire, crewing the ultimate flying machine: an airship made of living animals. Now, as Alek flees from his own people, and Deryn crash-lands in enemy territory, their lives are about to collide…

I’d been meaning to read this book for a while, so I was very excited to win a copy of it in @WondrousReads‘ Twitter competition. The combination of alternate history and steampunk vs Darwinism inspired biological engineering sounded like it was going to be just my thing, and I was not disappointed.

The book tells the story of two teenagers Alek, brought up a Clanker – the steampunk half of society who use amazing machinery, and Deryn, a Darwinist – they biologically engineer all of their equipment, cross breeding species to create everything they need. Alek is the son of the newly assassinated Archduke, his protectors are trying to keep him from capture which would lead ultimately to his death too. Deryn is desperate to fly so has disguised herself as a boy to be accepted to train as an airman. Their paths end up crossing, and they have to work out how to get along when their views on everything are different.

I loved the plot of the book, and the way it was structured – the point of view changes between Deryn and Alek every two chapters, this worked really well for me. I quite often end up liking one character or one plot line best in books, with Leviathan I was equally engaged with both Deryn’s story and Alek’s story and I liked the anticipation of moving between the two.

The way the book is written is wonderfully vivid, particularly the descriptions of the Darwinist creatures and the way the work. In addition to this the book is illustrated by Keith Thompson. His art is gorgeous and works so well with the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed Leviathan. It’s the first book in a series, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series and I’ll be catching up with Scott Westerfeld’s other books too.

Leviathan is published in paperback by Simon & Schuster in the UK priced £6.99

Book Review

Book Review : “The Infernal Devices 1: Clockwork Angel” by Cassandra Clare.

Magic is dangerous – but love is more dangerous still… When sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray arrives in England during the reign of Queen Victoria, something terrifying is waiting for her in London’s Downworld, where vampires, warlocks and other supernatural folk stalk the gaslit streets. Friendless and hunted, Tessa seeks refuge with the Shadowhunters, a band of warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons. Drawn ever deeper into their world, she finds herself fascinated by – and torn between – two best friends, and quickly realizes that love may be the most dangerous magic of all.

Seeing the gorgeous cover for this book on various book blogs made me think that it was a book for me, so after checking it didn’t matter that I hadn’t read any of the Mortal Instruments series I bought this book and quickly settled to read it. Once I’d started I was completely hooked and found it very difficult to put down.

The plot is intriguing, and I felt that using Tessa as a device to explain the Downworld and Shadowhunters to the reader was excellent. It made the necessary exposition seem natural, to me there was never a feeling of the author having to shoehorn it in. I loved the world that Clare has created, the Victorian London backdrop worked so well and allowed for beautifully descriptive passages. The book contains some battle sequences, something I often don’t enjoy as much as the rest of the book. These were well written and had me reading with baited breath, sometimes not wanting to turn the page and find out what was about to happen.

I found the characters to be interesting and engaging. I’m always a sucker for male characters who are hiding something, Will and Jem both fit this description well and I wonder as the series progresses which one I will love the most. I found that I was really invested in what happened to the characters, there was a moment late on in the book that I hadn’t been expecting that left me crying on a train. Tessa herself still remains something of a mystery but I felt that this worked within the book, she is learning so many new things that her character is evolving with them.

I absolutely loved this book and am now planning to catch up with all of the Mortal Instruments books. The epilogue of Clockwork Angel has left me eagerly awaiting the next instalment in this prequel series.