Dead Iron by Devon Monk

Genre classifications are getting a little more fluid of late, I think.  There are so many books that defy categorization that it can be a challenge to describe what kind of book I’m reading at any given time.  Obviously, not all mash-ups work, but Devon Monk’s Age of Steam series has welded several disparate story styles together into one smoothly working whole.  Dead Iron introduces readers to Cedar Hunt, a man struggles with his inner beast as he navigates an America of gears and steam.

“In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother’s death. Then he’s offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers-and now in the hands of an ancient Strange who was banished to walk this Earth.

In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he’s going to save his brother and reclaim his soul once and for all…”

When I first saw the mishmash of genres that make up this novel, I really wasn’t sure it would work.  However, Monk has been clever in not only the story’s setting, but also its time period.  Having the novel take place on the west coast gives it the rugged feeling of people living in closer proximity with nature and working hard to eke out a living.  It also seems to allow for the presence of magic a little more easily—there are many tales of odd creatures on this side of the country, as well as Native American myths and legends.  By having the story take place during the height of the railroad expansion, the author has seamlessly introduced the concept of steam, metal and rails.  Because of this, the mechanical aspects of steampunk fit right in.

While I liked Cedar’s character, I found myself more drawn to the women, Rose and Mae.  I think that they were a little more interesting as people, and their role in the story was a little more complex.  While the townspeople may not have warmed up to Cedar, he’s still a man and is likely to be left to his own devices.  Women in this time period, especially ones who seem to be “witchy”, face another set of challenges that can escalate and become deadly.  Mae’s situation is further complicated by her marriage to an African American man, something that adds a level of social stigma to her life.  Cedar may be balancing the needs of man and beast, but the women are balancing their natures in a completely different way, and it’s a way has a firm basis in historical fact.  We may not like to think about women being persecuted as witches, but unfortunately it did happen.

The one thing that I occasionally had trouble with was the descriptions of the machines, or “matics”, as they’re called here.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to visualize them very well.  The author spends a decent amount of time describing the things, but after a while they started to run together somewhat.  A few stood out, like the clockwork dragonfly that shows up a few times, but most of them didn’t stand out very well for me.  Maybe there was just too much description at times—and a few battles have several matics in the scene at once—and it all ran together.

For all that, the book moves at a reasonably fast pace.  The narrative moves between several different viewpoints, so readers always have a sense of the story’s motion, the direction in which it is flowing.  Moments that could have slowed the story down become merely short pauses, as Monk smoothly changes from person to person, following all the various plot elements and simultaneously getting you to care about this cast of characters.

It took me a while to get around to reading this book, but I’m glad that I finally picked it up in advance of the release of its sequel, Tin Swift.  Devon Monk is an author who combines unique settings with interesting characters and then adds a dose of strangeness to the mix—or in this case, Strangeness.  Dead Iron is the start of a tale that combines the best of the Wild West with the mystery of lycanthropy and the mechanized realism of steampunk.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

This review was originally posted on July 5, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

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