When I saw the cover for this book, I was immediately disgusted yet enthralled by it. Spiders are my nemesis, they freak me the frick out in the worst ways possible, yet I also find myself completely fascinated by them. So, naturally when I read that Steamborn by Eric R. Asher was a steampunk novel with these creepy crawlers, I knew that I absolutely had to check it out, and I’m very happy to say that it was a rewarding read!
Let me provide a brief disclaimer before I dive into the review. Steamborn is a very special book for me because it is my very first steampunk experience. The genre has always been very interesting to me, and I have found novels that peaked my interest, but never enough to grab my attention by the horns. Yet, this particular story captivated my focus and held on pretty tightly until the very end.
This is a story about a young boy named Jacob, who resides in lower, poverty stricken areas of the large mountain city known as Ancora; a city that is protected by giant walls to keep out large and frightening creatures. He’s an apprentice to a tinker, Charles, who likes to build gadgets and gizmos. While Charles is quite gifted in the art, Jacob is truly brilliant. When insects break through the walls of the Lowlands—the poor section of the city—Jacob and his family find themselves fleeing to higher ground. As they reside in the wealthy portion of Ancora, awaiting the walls to be rebuilt, Jacob, Charles, and a charming love interest named Alice discover some rather horrendous secrets left behind in the wake of a prominent war from the past.
There are three distinct elements that make Steamborn a delightful reading adventure. The first one is the steampunk component. Being vastly new to this genre, I felt reserved because I was expecting something that would be greatly overwhelming in apparatuses, gauges, and other facets relating to the universe. The devices, while intricate, aren’t described in a head-scratcher way. I could easily picture the tools that the tinkers used, the different little pieces that went into whatever contraption was being created, or fixed up. There also isn’t a whole lot of steampunkish contrivances. Yes, it’s used for world building, to set the environment of Steamborn, and is a big part of the plot as Charles and Jacob invent some nifty things to help injured peoples, however. While you read this fiction, you aren’t overwhelmed with wholly complex machineries and mechanisms. It’s seamlessly limited to what’s necessary for atmosphere, and then using it for plot progression, making this novel a wonderful introduction into the genre for beginners, or newbies, like me!
The second element that I found to be quite brilliant is the writing. The character interactions are fantastic. Nothing felt forced, or unnecessary. When Jacob spoke to Charles you could feel the respect they had for one another. When he’s talking to Alice, you can feel his affection for her without it being flowery or unrealistic. He is kind to Alice, teasing her and flirting with her, but before all of that they are best friends who have conversations about serious topics, such as family and politics, without it getting drowned in adolescent hormones. Descriptives about the metropolis, the milieus beneath the city, the monstrous bugs, the differences in the rich and the poor—all of it is impeccably put together. As a reader, I could envision myself standing within the walls of a particular home, or a cave, yet there’s still enough room for my imagination to roam a little bit. In my opinion, this is the perfect way to craft an environment, where the reader can truly adapt to the world in a way that’s inherently their own.
The third element that blew me away are the characters. At the surface, everyone appears to be rather straightforward in nature. You have Jacob who is a boy trying to survive in a cutthroat universe; all he wants is to provide for his parents. Charles is decidedly the eccentric tinkerer who produces crazy things, holed up in his lab. Alice is the naïve little girl with a pretty face and a kind heart. You also have a guy named Samuel who works for what is essentially the city’s police force (riding around on a giant spider). Yet, underneath all of these attributes you have people that have a past that’s equal parts disturbing, violent, or just plain sad. The depth that laces these individuals creates an empathetic connection between them and you, the reader, which not only draws you in, but keeps you engaged. You want to know what happens to them, what they will do next, etc. Another sign of gifted writing capability.
There are only two flaws with this novel that gave me pause, and they are rather simple, and actually relate to one another: the pacing and the eventual ending it leads us to. The book is comfortably paced until we reach the last quarter. Then it picks up and starts to take off very rapidly. When I recognized that there were only ten chapters left in the book, I literally shook my head with disappointment. There is no major conflict in Steamborn that could be wrapped up in one book; it’s very obviously set up to be a series (after you get about three-fourths of the way through that is). This aggravated me because I feel that a book, whether it is in a series or not, should have a conflict and resolution that is specific to the book. Maybe there is a bigger picture, a much more serious issue that can’t be addressed in one installment, and that’s perfectly dandy with me. Nonetheless, every novel should have their own problems that need to be addressed in said narrative. Steamborn not only doesn’t have this, but the ending is excruciatingly abrupt. From the way the ending is written, I perceived that there wasn’t a very good place to end the book to begin with, so when the finale does arrive it’s anticlimactic and sudden.
Overall, Steamborn by Eric R. Asher is a damn-well written book, and an amazing introduction to steampunk. While I highly recommend this title (if bugs don’t bug you too much, that is), I feel I must do so with the disclaimer that in order to get the whole story experience, you will have to invest your time into all three books. Otherwise, you will be left drastically unsatisfied. My final rating for Steamborn is three and a half glow-worms out of five.