I really enjoyed this book. But I’m having a difficult time trying to describe it. One blurb calls it ‘a steampunk War and Peace’, which might well be accurate, but I haven’t read War and Peace. It certainly fits my idea of what a steampunk War and Peace would be like. Anyway, let’s get into the story before trying to dissect it.
The country of Lauchenland claimed its independence from the Empire in the first Air War, helped in no small part by their almost peerless aerostatic corps of dirigibles. The ruling Volksbund party, ostensibly a workers’ party diametrically opposed to the bourgeois ruling structure of the empire, are on a war footing, expecting imminent invasion by the empire to reclaim the young republic. Into this fractious climate falls Heino Voss, an ambitious young working-class man who has always longed to fly, and Erich von Eck, a member of the elitist Altenkirch aristocracy, whose family have sent him to fight for the Empire as part of a cynical plot to ensure they support the winning side, whomever that transpires to be.
While these two are our alternating POV characters, there is a third who is, to my mind at least, equally a main character: Saskia von Eck, Erich’s sister and Heino’s navigator. Saskia is the fulcrum that the story pivots upon and it is the three of them that the tale ultimately plays out for.
The story itself is one of war, as you would expect. It has a great deal to say about honour and duty, and just how murky these concepts become in battle. Erich in particular struggles with the moral complexities of being a military leader, while Heino is drawn into Saskia’s moral crusade, where her own staunch beliefs threaten to be their undoing.
The inspiration for the territories and culture is clearly Germanic, while other countries including France and the UK have obvious allegorical counterparts in the world. Whether or not the underlying conflict is inspired directly by the German revolution and the Weimar Republic I can’t say, as my knowledge of it is sparse, but the Volksbund managed to put me in mind of both the Bolsheviks and early Nazis all at once. There was little sign of a redeemable character connected to the party anywhere in the tale.
Equally, the Empire’s rulers are not painted favourably, but as distanced elites playing power games while ordinary people die in their name. The only man who really comes out well in a leadership sense in General Kurzbach, the head of the Imperial army who, by no coincidence, comes not from the landed gentry. He is a sensible, considered man whose instincts are to avoid conflict.
Even our heroes are presented with clear flaws. Heino can be selfish and, arguably, cowardly, while Erich is an unreconstructed snob. Both, however, manage to be likeable in different ways, and I soon found myself caring about them and Saskia.
It’s in describing the flavour of the book I have some difficulty. It’s written in a classic style, by which I mean it could easily pass for a Victorian novel in many ways, using archaic language (I had to look up ‘abstracted’ to confirm its old meaning, despite being able to work it out from context) right down to the historically accurate swearing of ‘damn’ and ‘blast’ being censored just as they would have been in their day: ‘d—’ and ‘b—‘. I smiled as these little details took me back to my English degree days.
And, indeed, the book probably has more in common with these novels than modern fantasy. It is split into ‘books’ of multiple chapters, with each book following a different character. Book One is essentially an academy story, following Heino as he trains in the aerostatic corps, including a number of familiar tropes. Book Two takes a radical shift, following Erich in a tale that could have been written by Jane Austen, about propriety and social niceties as a garrisoned soldier (Erich) flirts with the daughters of a local doctor. It’s in this book, though, that war begins and life changes for everyone, as much of tale goes on to consider the horrors of war and its human casualties.
It’s a thrilling ride of moral complexity, mystery, legal drama, romantic entanglements, class tensions and secret missions.
But where, you might reasonably ask, is the fantasy? There is no doubt, from the very beginning, that this is a fantasy novel. The opening gambit is a short prologue set 250 years before Book One, telling the tale of a botched demon summoning and an ambitious underling who advantageously works it to his benefit. But then? For 90% of the book, that’s it. The demon element is relegated to background information. We get snippets about how the empire was built on the back of demonic powers hundreds of years ago, but it’s held at a distance. It’s absolutely relevant to the book and to the story - crucial, even - so it hasn’t just been tagged on as a fantasy element. But if you like your fantasy steeped in magic and wonder, you might find yourself disappointed in how long it takes to come back around.
But again, I did really enjoy it. It was different and yet familiar, and most importantly I cared about the characters, staying up too late and reading when I should have been doing other things in order to find out what happened to them.
If I have criticisms, they are mild. There were places where the world felt a little ‘thin’ for lack of a better word, and I just wanted more. And the climax, while a satisfying (if at least a little expected) crescendo, felt slightly rushed, and was over too soon. Some elements of the story would have stood to be told in a little more detail, but then, I suppose, wanting more from a book is a sign that it’s doing what it does well. Some of the supporting characters could perhaps have been a bit more fleshed out and with such a large supporting cast, an occasional reminder of who a character is when they are reintroduced would have been welcome. In fact, perhaps the book could have even more fully embraced its classic roots and gone for a full dramatis personae alongside a map (who doesn’t love a map?) at the beginning. But really, these are small complaints.
If you are intrigued by the question ‘What if Jane Austen wrote a steampunk War and Peace with demons?’ I think you’ll enjoy this. I’ll certainly be reading the sequel.