THE FALLING MACHINE (The Society of Steam, Book One) by Andrew P. Mayer
Pyr, 2011, 285 pages, 978-1-61614-375-6, Trade Paperback, $16.00
The Falling Machine takes place in New York during the 1880s, but it’s not entirely the New York of the history books. A group of gentlemen known as the Paragons defend the city with the help of Fortified Steam, which gives them superhero-like abilities by powering their weapons and technology. Dennis Darby, the leader of the Paragons, has high hopes for the future, but when he is murdered by villains who want the secret of his work, the Paragons fall into disarray, unable to agree on their next move and refusing to respect Darby’s final wishes.
Sarah Stanton, daughter of the Paragon Alexander Stanton, wants to get to the bottom of Darby’s death, and she tries to do this with the help of the Sleuth, Peter Wickman, and Darby’s mechanical man, the Automaton. Her part in the investigation proves to be difficult, however, as she fights against repression due to her gender and against her father’s desire to bar her from all future Paragon activities.
Chapter one of this book immediately throws the reader into the fray. You’ll barely be five pages in before the ball gets rolling with Darby’s murder (trust me, it’s not a spoiler), and everything that follows is a result of his assassination. This first book is part investigation into this incident and part set-up for the rest of the series, and I think that’s where my wobbly feelings about the book derive.
Everything about the investigation of Darby’s death was interesting. I must be a mystery fan who just doesn’t know it yet, because I love the process of snooping around and revealing secrets from clues. Most of this portion was handled by Peter Wickman, a character who stands out with more than a few similarities to Sherlock Holmes (and I loved that about him). He is easily one of the most interesting characters in the story as he tries to ferret out who is responsible for Darby’s murder as well as who might be a traitor among the Paragons. Also, his relationship with Sarah is far more friendly and understanding than her relationship with her father, which makes for a nice break from the tension between them and also better illustrates just how helpless Sarah becomes in her father’s presence.
In fact, Sarah was, perhaps, where I felt the story was weakest (at least for this first volume). I had anticipated that she would be more active, but she was constantly being held back by her father’s authority. Not that she paid it much mind, but it did prove something of an obstacle. Her response to his rules and commands, of course, was to ignore them and do as she liked anyway. This caused me some bit of conflict. On the one hand, I can’t tolerate it when a young girl isn’t allowed the same freedoms as everyone else. On the other, I have a hard time respecting anyone who willfully disregards what is asked of them. So, do I see her point of view on the matter? Yes, absolutely, and the dismissive way in which others treated her annoyed me immensely. And, yet, I also wanted her to behave a little better. Or maybe I just wanted her to get caught less often….
It’s obvious, by the end, that Sarah will likely play a much bigger role in the second book (no spoilers!), but in the meantime, much of the legwork is handled by Wickman, and by the Automaton, who goes simply by Tom.
Tom was another excellent character for many reasons, and, of course, you’ll want him to succeed simply because the odds are against him. The Paragons, in their close-mindedness and paranoia, have banned him from continued participation in the society, despite Darby’s hope that they would all work together. Sarah and Wickman support him, of course, but they’re hardly able to keep watch on him at all times.
I also found Tom’s construction fascinating. Mayer doesn’t go deeply into it, but the first mention of the way in which Tom “sees” is incredibly interesting, and I immediately took to the character based simply on the way he works. Of course, as we see more of Tom, his personality and determination make him an even more likeable character, which will make the reader wonder why the Paragons are being such hard-heads regarding him (though the answer to that question becomes obvious the more you read).
There were other interesting characters and elements in The Falling Machine, including the enigmatic Anubis, the true antagonist (whom you don’t meet until later in the novel), the superhero themes, and the existence of Fortified Smoke to rival the protagonists’ Fortified Steam. I won’t go heavily into any of these things–it’s far more fun to read about them yourself–so just know that I found them all quite entertaining.
Where the writing style was concerned, I wavered between liking it and finding it a bit too slow for my tastes. I liked that Mayer was clear about what was happening, but at times the descriptions were lengthier than was probably necessary. This caused scenes to be drawn out when a faster pace would have enhanced the action. Then again, other reviews have noted that the pacing was very much to that reader’s liking, so this may well be a matter of personal preference.
Without a doubt, readers may be frustrated by the enormous cliffhanger of an ending, but considering that the next book–Hearts of Smoke and Steam–is due out in November, there’s practically no time left to wait at all.
Definitely a book for steampunk and superhero lovers, while the writing style and young protagonist may also appeal to young adult readers.
Thank you to Pyr for providing me with a review copy of this novel.