The first installment in a new series by Devon Monk (author of the Allie Beckstrom novels), Dead Iron is a wonderfully fresh and intriguing combination of steampunk technology and western action.
In a world running on steam and gears, science has taken the forefront. However, tales of magic still circulate; magic, and something largely regarded as superstition, a mysterious realm tied to the mortal plane: The Strange.
Cedar Hunt, teacher by schooling but bounty hunter by trade, has come to the Oregon frontier carrying both his guilt over his brother’s death and a curse of lycanthropy which transforms his body and mind into that of a wolf’s during the full moon. Mae Lindson, a renegade witch who left her coven due to her unorthodox methods, hunts for her husband’s killer. And Shard LeFel, railroad tycoon come to Hallelujah, Oregon promising a better tomorrow, is not what he seems to be. In fact, he is something Strange, banished to the mortal plane until his death.
When Cedar learns from a trio of brothers that his brother may yet live, no price is too high to pay to find him. In return for the information, he must track down the Holder, a device created by the mad inventors of the Strange. However, the Holder is in the hands of LeFel, who believes it the key to releasing him from the curse of mortality. But to activate the device, LeFel needs three final victims — a child, a cursed man, and a witch — and he already has two of the three in his possession. It is a race against the clock for Cedar to uncover the mystery surrounding Shard LeFel, the town of Hallelujah, and himself.
Intricate cogs and characters
The character work in the novel is absolutely wonderful. For the major players, enough is seen of who they are and what makes them tick (sometimes literally!) that they are believable as actual characters. Yet there are questions left about each, shadows left to explore, that makes one want to continue reading to discover their secrets. A prime example of the fantastic character work is Cedar Hunt. Though he is a bounty hunter, he has his morals — he will not hunt to kill. However, he is quick (though not without his doubts) to toss these morals out when he discovers his brother might still live.
A well-oiled machine
Apart from the characters, the aspect of the novel that really sold it for me was the plot. It had the right mix of fast-paced action coupled with suspense to hold my attention through the the entirety of the book (even though much of my reading was done in the pit at the theatre!). The division of the storyline between the major players is very balanced, and each is engaging. Not only was the plot of the novel tight and concise, it also laid a few foundatoins for series-spanning subplots — a great selling point for me.
Shakes, stirs, and serves
This is a true genre mash-up, and as my first real foray into steampunk novels, Dead Iron delivered, and did it well. While it may seem that the western, steampunk, and fantasy genres are simply smashed together, the three genres have actually been closely interwoven, much like the many tiny gears in a watch or a clock. It is a polished, well-organized world, and I loved every moment of it. And as a setting for a new series, I believe it holds a lot promise; while the reader may see the finished facade and some of the underlying foundations of the world, there are enough aspects left unexplained to pique the curiosity of the reader.
The downside to this is that the world almost overpowers the main plot. Almost, but not quite. For me, a novel is usually more about the characters and how they make it through their given circumstances, and that held true for Dead Iron. However, I did find myself wanting to know more about things happening back East, in China, and the rest of the world, which is where I think the series is probably heading.
Why should you read this book?
It’s something fresh, new, and exciting. Instead of being a steampunk novel with aspects of fantasy and western, it reads more like a fantasy novel with steampunk technology. The characters are engaging, the plot lines are twisty but fairly easy to follow, and the premise is original. This is a fantastic start to a promising new series.