Sunday, June 02, 2013

Book Review: Escapement

Full Disclosure: Ciara Knight is a friend from a previous career life. When a friend tells me she's writing a steampunk series and is looking for feedback, it seems rather difficult to do. I guess I'll find out with this review won't I? And by the way, I did not receive a free copy--as a writer's courtesy, I paid full fare for the download--it's a good practice and keeps you a tad more honest.

What we have here is a steampunk romance. Actually, let me add another layer to that. What we have is a steampunk superhero romance. Ciara is trying something very ambitious here, and where it will go is anybody's guess--except hers.

I'll get my confessions/negative feedback out of the way first so I can get on to the fun stuff (though, like any author, she'll probably zoom in on the constructive criticism). My primary confession is that it took me a while to finish this book. I don't consider this a reflection on Ciara so much as my taste in books. I am not a romance reader, nor a particular fan of the steampunk subgenre, though I am a fan of The Peshawar Lancers, to name one. Romances thrive on emotional and sexual tension--of which this story has plenty--but that's not the sort of fiction I read for fun. That has probably colored this review more than it should, but then I am not Ciara's target market.

I had some difficulty "visualizing" this world in my head. The steampunk aesthetic, because it is so specific, requires a bit more attention to the reader's "eye." What are people wearing? What does the technology look like? What sort of vehicles do they use? How are interior spaces decorated--is it actually Victorian, or technology from our own time repurposed as such? Where are the characters in relationship to each other? Escapement has places where this is done well and other places where I would have preferred the extra one- to two-sentence scenic detour to help me situate myself. There are some interesting pieces of technology in this book that would bear a moment's consideration. Consider my favorites, the steampunk-flavored Borg  implants that Escapement's ruling class wear: eyepieces, heart replacements, leg replacements, primitive circuit boards. What color are they? How are they powered?

One last issue I have is understanding how old this civilization is. One learns over the course of this first (of several) stories that the primary villain, an implant-laden queen, played a key role in forming this society, which exists sometime after the "great war" of 2185. At times it seems that the war happened long ago, and others like it occurred during the childhood of the protagonist, Princess Semara. Are we dealing with a post-nuclear war world? We get hints, but not (yet enough) to fill in all the pieces. There are giant creatures in certain parts of this ruined America called "sermechtapedes," which were either mutated or fabricated into existence. How? When? We have references to the prewar world--cultural or political artifacts I won't spoil for you--but again it was difficult to situate myself in place and time.


So I've been poking at my friend pretty hard with the iron fist here. Time to apply the velvet glove. Ciara's got an ambitious story going on here with a lot of things going on at once: a romance, a political drama of sorts, and a culture war, with machine people (called Kantians) on one side, supernatural rebels (called Neumarians) with X-Men types of powers on the other, and a variety of plain old humans in the middle struggling to live their lives as slaves or victims or escapees.

Ciara actually introduced this story through a prequel novella titled Weighted, which tells the story from the perspective of Raeth, a Neumarian who has been captured and tortured by the machine people. Escapement continues the story from Semara's point of view.

In Weighted, we learn that the machine people have made it their mission in life to kill the Neumarians, which they view as "parasites." In Weighted, a younger Princess Semara must face a choice about what to do when it's her turn to kill a Neumarian. Escapement shows 16(?)-year-old Semara living with the consequences of that choice. Without giving away too much, suffice to say that Semara has been having second thoughts about the things she's been forced to do and decides to take action to escape that life. This puts her into the company of the hated Neumarians and on an inevitable collision course with her mother, the queen.

What I like with this story is how Ciara manages to advance the personal relationships between Semara and the other characters around her. She grows as a person and the friendships around her deepen as the narrative goes forward. That is not an easy thing to convey or do well. Another thing I like is that her Neumarian characters' "powers" have limitations or costs. They are not infinite, they require specific resources, and they take a toll on the user or others when used. Lastly, the story keeps moving through continually new conflicts or challenges. There might be too many challenges, perhaps--the reader and the characters barely have an opportunity to catch their breath before the next  big thing hits. The narrator's voice never eases up: there is always something new to worry about. Is that a function of Ciara's style or this genre or this character? I don't know, but there were a couple of times I wanted to give the narrator a hug and ask her to relax, if only for a moment. :-)

So while I have my misgivings about this type of story, I am tempted to keep reading, if only to see where Ciara takes her characters. I give her a lot of credit: she wanted very badly to write fiction when we were working together, and she's gone out and done it. And she's taking risks to grow and improve her craft. I wish I were that passionate about story telling, though I favor nonfiction. Regardless, I believe that if you are of a mind to read a steampunk-themed romance, then Escapement and the rest of the Neumarian Chronicles will probably work for you. Give it a try.

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