Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders is the debut novel by Richard Ellis Preston Jr., and it is a thoroughgoing steampunk tale of high adventure and action in a future dystopian United States.
Don’t let your settings grow up to be cowboys
A common problem I’ve found with a lot of steampunk is the way that the setting completely takes over the entire process of your story. I know that steampunk is more than just a genre. There’s fashion, music, lingo. For the fans of steampunk, it is as much a movement or a life choice as a mere setting. But seriously. I have never read so much otherwise pointless description of how many gears and pipes and crap are stuck to someone’s hat. This book clocked in at 456 pages, and I honestly feel like a solid 100 could have been cut just reducing direct description of steampunk elements.
I know it’s a debut novel, and I know that the setting is not the traditional Victorian England that the majority of steampunk is set in, so a certain degree of over-narration is inevitable, but there was way too much telling and not nearly enough showing going on. Speaking of the setting, Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders takes place in a future Earth, after what I generally presumed to be a nuclear apocalypse (at least, they’re soundly in nuclear winter, though some plot elements suggest the apocalyptic event was chemical in nature rather than nuclear. It’s never spelled out). That on its own is pretty cool. However, there are a lot of strange disconnects in information supply. The protagonist is given cause at one point to wonder “What’s a subway?” when he hears another character use the word. Yet then they know exactly what a locomotive is when one is menacing them. Given that this is the future, subways would have been used much more recently in their timeline, and locomotives brought back and put into use after the disaster. On more than a few occasions I found it a little off-putting what we’re expected to believe survived and what didn’t.
You do the debut that you do
All of this, however, is really to be expected for a debut novel. It can take a long time for an author to settle into a new setting even when they’re an experienced writer generally. A lot of exposition needed to get crammed into not a lot of space, and I think that Preston Jr. is still finding his voice and settling into his groove. The world we saw, if a little disjointed, is still quite interesting. I was engaged, and enjoyed my trip through this grand adventure. There was a certain 1940s serial adventure vibe to it. A sort of Rocketeer meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with a pinch of Raiders of the Lost Ark for flavor.
I’m willing to grant Preston Jr. some slack for this being the first entry out of the gate. The whole story was basically built to give baseline world knowledge and point squarely at a sequel, and I’m definitely willing to give the next novel, Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War (releasing November 2013), a try, as well. I’d just like to see a little less Basil Exposition, less emphasis on pointing out how steampunk everything is, a little more showing by doing, and more depth into the action elements. We had a few fights that were really excellent to read, and the gadgetry is cool and flashy and exactly what steampunk is supposed to be.
Why should you read this book?
You should read this book because it has a lot of potential. It has some flaws, but they’re all understandable as growing pains for a very complicated setting in a new world in a new book by a new author. As a post-apocalyptic world goes, I quite like it, and I’m excited to see more. I’m not the biggest fan of steampunk, and it does get laid on a little thick, but it still makes for an entertaining adventure story.
Dan received an advanced reader copy of Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders courtesy of 47North.