Sunday, August 12, 2012

Secrets of the Fire Sea

"And every so often, it's time for you to stand up and take responsibility for your own actions."
- Badger-headed Joseph

                I've wondered for a while now why I seem to like Stephen Hunt's novels of strange pulp fiction, but by the same turn seem to dislike most retro-future and steampunk novels. Part of it could be that, as I said, steampunk is very hard to get right, with most people simply pandering to the airships-and-cogs crowd. But I think the answer lies a little deeper than that:

The best steampunk writers, in my opinion, don't strictly write steampunk.

               Now, part of this has to do with steampunk being more or less a broadly-defined genre. For a book to be steampunk, usually it's science fiction transposed to the Victorian era with some minor magical elements to tie together how in Hell a society can do all the things they can when the only devices they have are steam-powered. On the surface, it seems like a very simple definition, and one in my youthful folly I claimed wasn't that hard to screw up. However, it appears that simply stopping with that is pretty much what separates the good from the bad.
              F'rinstance, take Secrets of the Fire Sea. In this book, we have elements of pulp adventure stories, high fantasy, hard SF, detective stories, cyberpunk*, post-apocalyptic fiction, and about six or seven other things I may have forgotten that just wound up all wrapped up in there. It's probably got some elements of cosmic horror and, well, regular horror there, too. Stephen Hunt isn't content to just stop with one genre of fantastic fiction, he has to have them all. And use them all at the same time

              Secrets of the Fire Sea takes a new direction for Stephen Hunt's Jackals Sextology**, not setting any of the story in the Kingdom of Jackals and playing with its many devices, but moving the action to the island of Jago. Jago is an island nation with a single city comprised of hermetically sealed vaults in the middle of the titular sea. The nation is home to one Hannah Conquest, a young mathematician who wishes to join the Rationalist Circlist Church. Hannah lives with her guardian, the Archbishop of Jago, until suddenly the Archbishop's murder**** leaves her indentured to the sinister Guild of Valvemen and forced into a power struggle almost centuries in the making. At the same time, a group from Jackals comes to Jago to investigate both the murder of the Archbishop, and the research left by archaeologists who died under mysterious circumstances. Naturally, the two plots split, and interweave, and finally come crashing together in a brilliant fury at the end of the book, an explosion of steam-bots, battle scenes, and sentient bears.

           Oh. Yeah. There are sentient bear-people in this. It's a little jarring at first, especially since there aren't many sentient non-human races in Hunt's novels, but you get used to them pretty quick. 

           What makes this book worth reading, however, is the sheer staggering amount of stuff in the novel. Stephen Hunt's always been an imaginative author, and the world of Jackals hasn't ever gone without its share of cool concepts, and this book is no exception. Jago's defenses and power plants (which hew closer to dieselpunk than steampunk) are heavily detailed, and the familiar grotesque nature of the world is definitely on display-- the Valvemen all seem to be dying from radiation poisoning, the "stained senate" is governed by a senile man with a foot fetish, and the cities are being swallowed up both by the sea and the feral beasts beyond the walls. The hacking sequences, too, are all very lovingly detailed, short on mathematics but still holding true to most of the conventions of actual hacking-- long commands and mathematics rather than flailing wildly, and the idea that it can't do everything.

         Another great thing about Stephen Hunt's books as a whole is the characters. Hunt will usually take minor characters from his work and turn them into major characters in others. In this one, Jethro Daunt and his companion Boxiron become major players, as well as a research assistant from The Kingdom Beyond The Waves. The fact that these stories do feel like parts of a larger world where every character plays their own part in different stories helps to tie the sense of the world together, and definitely helps with the overall plots of the book.

          However, there are a few issues. Hunt can't seem to stick to one plotline, or even one set of villains. While in previous books the plot twists were set up in advance, here the plots tend to come out of nowhere and change without warning. Literally the last hundred and thirty words had me yelling "What?! No!" as I tried to make sense of exactly what was going on. The book cuts back and forth too quickly, and the main villain for most of the first half of the book suddenly and without warning is neutralized and shrugged off. They spend the rest of the book more or less as a persona non grata while other factions come out of the wings. The final plot twist is actually so random as to count as nonsensical. On top of this, Hunt cuts around too damn fast. There are even some plot elements he just drops completely. F'rinstance, what's the whole deal with the creepy chamber in the basement of the Guild's stronghold? Never comes up at all.

        The other problem I have is how Hunt handles death. With a precious few notable exceptions, most characters in Hunt's novels are pretty much dumped unceremoniously without a second thought, leaving characters who have sometimes been with you through the entire book suddenly tossed off the page without a second thought. Hunt has done this before, in Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and it was just as annoying then as it was now. In particular, the character he does it with deserved a much better death, once again.

         But in the end, despite the plot's breakdown and all the silly twists and character deaths, this is a book worth reading, especially if you enjoy steampunk or pulp-style adventures. It has some imaginative ideas, some very good setpieces, and while it's lesser when compared to the previous novels in the series, an iffy Stephen Hunt book is still a damn good book. Maybe not a must-buy and read for everyone, but a good read nonetheless, and an essential book for fans of the series.

The Demi-Monde: Winter

Good Omens as a classic review. So I can see what I think of it twenty years after its debut, and ten years after I read it.
The Half-Made World

*Victorian-age computer hacking! All over the damn place!
**Writing that word makes me feel dirty...maybe not as much as his abandonment of the really cool cover scheme he had going until he swapped publishers, but still. 
***What is his deal with all these orphans? Seriously. 
****Once again, spoilers be damned, they say so on the farging dust jacket

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