Thursday, May 28, 2009

Steampunk vamps and undersea adventure

I'm all about cool fantasy titles over at my column in Bookslut this month; two novellas in particular stood out for me that I thought GLW readers would enjoy. If you're in the mood for alt history vamps or Sherlock Holmes with serious style, I have the books for you.

Elizabeth Bear’s new novella Seven for a Secret is a sequel to her alternate history saga, New Amsterdam. This time her vampire main character Sebastien and his companion, the sorceress detective Lady Abigail Irene, find themselves embroiled in a plot by Prussian invaders to conquer Russia -- the last strong holdout in a Europe that has been overrun and occupied. The couple has returned to London for the elderly Abigail Irene’s death but it is not comfort they find in this occupied city. The action begins early on when on a protective whim Sebastien follows a pair of teenage girls out late one night who are in danger of falling victim to loyal Brits who will not favor their Prussian military dress. There is something about the girls that strikes him as odd and as he reveals a few gathered clues to Abigai,l Irene and their friend Phoebe they realize that an attempt is being made by the Prussians to form a squad of werewolves that could be unleashed on the Russian front. Whether the girls (who are part of this) can be saved or must be sacrificed is a point of contention that is not solved until Sebastien meets with one of them and discovers her secret. He realizes that the adults are not the only ones with a plan, nor are they necessarily the most powerful ones in the plot to change the world.

While I enjoyed New Amsterdam immensely (and highly recommend it), Bear surprised me by making this very teen friendly sequel. Ruth and Adele, the teens Sebastien follows, carry their fair share of the story and are strong characters. Bear also does a great job of rewriting history here, with a dark version of 1938 that fits perfectly into might-have-been territory. (See Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist or Jo Walton’s Farthing for other excellent alt-histories set in this period.) While the book will be most enjoyed by fans of Amsterdam, as it follows up on events there, new readers will find much to be excited about with Ruth and Adele as they face grave choices about loyalty to country, self and each other. It is clear that children are the new weapon of choice in this war but in a very unconventional matter. Bear provides plenty of political intrigue, some tension and enough mythic conversation to make readers long for a mystical library collection of their own. It’s nice to see Abigail and Sebastien still on the side of the good guys here, and even better to find a teenager who is bloody well tough enough to take on the true face of evil.

Alternate history detective Professor Langdon St. Ives returns in Subterranean Press’s The Ebb Tide, a steampunk adventure that includes one wicked cool submarine, a lost (and recently recovered) map, mysterious bad guys with guns and a final confrontation in Morecambe Bay “with its dangerous tides and vast quicksand pits.” St. Ives continues to be his brilliant deductive self although this time around more of the action is focused on stalwart sidekick (and faithful biographer) Jack Owlesby, who affords himself quite admirably in several dangerous situations above water and below.

Together with old friends and new, St. Ives and Owlesby are on the hunt for the suspected alien device from the Yorkshire Dales Meteor, which was lost in Morecambe Bay years before while under the care of Bill “Cuttle” Kraken who created a map of his intended route across the bay before succumbing to its treacherous tides. Just what the device is capable of no one knows but recovering it before the evil Ignacio Narbondo (otherwise known as “Frosticos”) is imperative. When the map is found, Ives is quickly on Kraken’s trail and along with Owlesby, a talented street urchin, and others who support him in his current days of banishment from the Explorers Club, the race is on to beat Frosticos. The discovery of a shipyard below the River Thames keeps things moving while introducing several of the mechanical devices that steampunk fans will enjoy. Everything leads to a confrontation with dastardly villains, one of whom gets his just deserts. All’s well that ends well (mostly) as Owlesby is victorious and the device -- whatever its origins might be -- is revealed at last.

Author James Blaylock keeps the action moving, the pithy comments flowing and the dire circumstances just this side of believable as St. Ives maneuvers his way around his arch enemy. Accompanied by J.K. Potter’s always stellar illustrations, The Ebb Tide is one of the better fantasy adventure characters I have come across in ages. Modern teens will love St. Ives but the inclusion of talented teen Finn Conrad (former circus acrobat of course) will keep them particularly riveted. There is nothing not to like about this novella and a lot to recommend it. Be sure to check out Blaylock’s other St. Ives adventures as well. (And don’t miss his afterword to the The Ebb Tide, a delightful combination of fact and fiction as the author ruminates on writing his story.)

[cross posted from Bookslut]


Ms. Yingling said...

I'll have to look at Seven for a Secret. Just not sure. Students probably would love it!

tanita✿davis said...

Man, both of those look cool -- like the Jules Vernesque cover of teh second one!

Colleen said...

Love those JK Potter covers too Tanita - he's awsome.

"Seven" really has only one blood thirsty moment and the book leads up to it all along so it's appropriate but the political intrigue is awesome and the teen heroine is very cool.