Friday, September 2, 2011

Dead Iron by Devon Monk [Review]

It’s a bit difficult to decide the genre of Devon Monk’s Dead Iron: It’s a little bit Western, a little bit fantasy fairytale, a little bit steampunk.  With so many different elements in play chances were high that the result would be a confused and unfocused mashup, and I will admit to owning this book for months before I could bring myself to read it.  Somehow, however, this book avoids these pitfalls and delivers a new and distinct world that gracefully introduces and blends these disparate elements.  The result is an intriguing story in which elements remain just that, and serve as the framework on which to build a complex and thoughtful story. This is not to say that there weren’t things that might have been done better—but more about that later. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is that it captures what it might have been like on the historic American frontier, a place in which a new history was being forged by an ever-growing number of immigrants from all over the world.  These immigrants brought their creation stories, myths, and beliefs to a new world that was already teeming with a native population rich in all of these aspects. As the frontier was trying to sort itself out between the ancient and the new, steam technology brought rapid change and an additional source of conflict.  This is why Dead Iron is appealing and believable: Although it is clearly a work of fantasy, it builds from a point of emotional authenticity that serves as the springboard for the fantastical.  Although there is a new mythical foe from an alternate place (the Strange), humans who can use magic, and fantastic machines (matics), the characters are archetypal within this well-told tale.   

Devon Monk’s writing style is clear and easy to follow, and I found the way the story developed engaging and interesting.  The imagery has the feel of the stylistically textured cinematic production of a dark fairytale, such as that found in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood: There is the battle of good against ultimate evil, both internally and externally, for the central characters Cedar, Mae, and Rose; The Madder brothers are tricksters who also fulfill the role of the (possibly magical) Helper; Rose is an orphan who is adopted by an abusive mother figure and must overcome evil with the aid of a magical item; and Shard LeFel is unambiguously the villain who must collect seven pieces (a magical number) to build the Holder that will allow him to open the door (a magical portal or liminal space) to another place. I believe the fairytale aspects are part of the reason I enjoyed the novel so much: The visuals of the story, and the way in which they are built within a familiar frame, helped me to identify important elements and remember them as the tale progressed.  They also made the book satisfying in terms of how the action built and was resolved even though the story is the first in a trilogy and the conclusion is open-ended.   

The story begins with Cedar Hunt, an educated man who has been driven, like so many others, to the frontier because of tragedy and loss.  His wanderings lead him to the town of Hallelujah, Oregon, where he lives a solitary life for two years.  He is restricted by a “curse” that forces him to live as a werewolf for three nights each month, and he begins the book confused by, and resistant to, the lycanthropy that has been placed on him by a Pawnee god. His self-loathing is further intensified by a belief that he is responsible for his brother Wil’s death.  Although Cedar considers his lycanthropy a curse, it comes with the advantage of making him an excellent hunter, and his desire to atone for his past sins leads him to use his skills to benefit others whenever he can.  In the first pages of the novel the reader learns a child has been abducted under mysterious circumstances, and of Cedar’s committment to recover him.  His mission is further complicated when he is informed by the Madder brothers that the brother he believes he killed is possibly alive and being held prisoner by Shard LeFel.  The triplets are willing to provide information about Wil’s location in exchange for a promise to retrieve a device with unknown powers, but no matter how desperate Cedar is to recover his brother, the little boy must come first.  He makes an amended vow to seek their item only after he has completed his quest to find the boy.

Mae Lindson is the resilient Western woman who has chosen to marry Jeb, a black man.  This couple relocated to Hallelujah for the opportunity at reinvention the frontier offers, but learned that there is only so much tolerance for their mixed-race marriage, even here. As the book begins Mae, who is a powerful witch, realizes her husband has been killed.  She knows that the people of the town will not tell her the identity of the murderer: Jeb is black, and there will be no justice for his murder.  She is unaware that his killing is related to her magical ability, or that she has bound her husband to her, even in death.  Jeb is determined to protect the love of his life and, despite his death, continues to walk the earth in an attempt to protect her from the unknown intentions of Shard LeFel and the forces of the Strange. Jeb’s perseverance and Mae’s commitment to Jeb in the face of grave injustice, makes their tragedy the heart of this novel.

Rose Small is the orphan with a magical past of some kind no one seems to quite understand.  She was taken in by the Smalls as a young child, and treated horribly since, and this makes her able to see and do things that other characters are unable to.  She has been born with an innate ability to create machines, but is limited because of her gender and unmarried status.  The frontier should be an optimal place for her as well, but her magical past ensures her status as an undesirable, and her dreams of a future in which she will have free reign to create seem unattainable.  

Shard LeFel isn’t human, but one of the Strange, the brother of a king of an alternate, magical place.  He’s the clear villain of the story, exiled to Earth for crimes against his brother, and determined to return and take revenge.  LeFel has already been on Earth for 300 years, but the term of his sentence has come to an end, and his time is up: either he finds a way to return to the place from which he came, or he dies.  My only quibble with LeFel’s story has to do with the revelation that the king of the Strange cares about Earth and seeks to protect it from evil forces; if this is the case, why did he send his clearly evil and traitorous brother to Earth?  LeFel’s determination to return to his kind leads him to perform acts of extreme cruelty, and I found this bit of exposition difficult to reconcile. Dead Iron is the first book in a trilogy, and I am hopeful this question will be answered—or at least explored—in future installments.

With so many points of view, the chances were high that the story would become disjointed and too difficult to follow, but I found this wasn’t the case.  Although Cedar Hunt is on the cover of the book and the implication is that he will be the main character of the story, the overall production felt like an ensemble cast movie, a move that complimented the imagery of the book.  The characters in this novel are one of its most attractive features, and I enjoyed seeing how one character’s decisions shaped the thought process and actions of another.  Although LeFel is unambiguously evil in his intention and action, the behavior of the remaining characters is anything but easy to classify.  Cedar does his best, but he is cobbled by a lack of control over his lupine self and the devastating tragedy in his past.  My main complaint about Cedar is that he is close-mouthed to his eternal detriment.  But no matter how much I wanted to yell at him to just tell another character something, this is an important element of Cedar’s character: He has no friends and is in self-exile, and it makes sense that he will be untrusting and less than forthcoming with others. Like Cedar, Mae is compelled to use her abilities for positive outcomes, but her desire to get justice for her husband may compromise her ethics and lead her down a path she can’t return from. Rose is less complicated in her intentions, but is on the verge of womanhood without knowing who she really is or why she was abandoned.  Her future is threatened if she can’t figure out how to move forward without the answers she desperately needs. The shifts between the points of view between so many principal characters could have been confusing, but instead it lent verisimilitude to the town of Hallelujah with the complexity of real interaction. 

I also liked the way the steampunk elements were woven into the story.  I appreciate that machines exist where they should and, even though the matics and other steam-powered creations are objects of fantasy, they fit within the story and are used in a way that makes sense. There is no hard sell of the steampunk elements in the story—they simply exist as part of a greater world and are used as tools of that world.  The conflict between the mystical and technological worlds is interesting, even beyond the fantasy aspects, and poses the questions that keep steampunks from a good night’s sleep.  Personally, my favorite storylines had to do with Mae and Rose, who represent the race and gender conflicts that have become central to steampunk.  Further, Wild West themes are becoming prominent in steampunk as the genre moves from its Victorian England origins into a broader world view, and I would have liked to have seen a greater presence on the part of the Native American population.  I am hopeful that this is an element that reappears with greater force in the future since Cedar’s curse originates with the Pawnee. 

Overall, I find myself far more excited about this is book, and the forthcoming additions, than I thought I would be.  I enjoyed the writing, and felt like the story unfolded in a way that made sense.  I can also say that, although this book is intended for adult audiences, it is suitable for ages 13 and up, and wouldn’t hesitate to put it in a school or classroom library.  

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