Review: The Falling Machine, by Andrew Mayer
Posted May 29, 2011on:
The Falling Machine (Society of Steam, book 1), by Andrew Mayer
published in May, 2011
Where I got it: received review copy from PYR
Being “Victorian”, most steampunk I’ve read takes place in Victorian England, so it was very refreshing to read a steampunk that takes place in the United States. Even better, to a city I’ve visited before, New York City. Mayer has taken the hustling, bustling, industrializing, Brooklyn-Bridge-just-starting New York City of 1880 and added superheroes, villains, automatons, and mad scientists.
Sarah Stanton, daughter of famed industrialist Alexander Stanton, lives a life of privilege. Although she isn’t supposed to leave her house without a chaperone, and she can’t vote or own property or choose her own husband, Sarah has been allowed to study under the inventor Dennis Darby. Darby, leader of the international group of superheroes known as The Paragons, and creator of the walking, talking, thinking automaton known as Tom, is Sarah’s favorite person in the whole world. When Sarah witnesses Darby’s violent death, his dying words regarding the future and her place in it become her responsibility.
The remaining Paragons promise to investigate Darby’s death, but after Alexander Stanton gets himself voted in as their leader, and Tom is deactivated and sequestered in the basement, it seems the only one truly interested in solving the mystery is Peter Wickham, also known as The Sleuth (he quickly became my favorite character). Thus begins an action packed romp through New York, pitting superhero against vigilante, tradition against progress. Chased by thugs proclaiming that The Children of Eschaton are coming, and helped by a mysterious masked man known as Anubis who tells them there is a traitor in the Paragons, Wickham and Sarah will come to question everything they believe in to solve the mystery.
Although there is plenty of action in The Falling Machine, it’s nicely balanced by Sarah’s humorous (at least to the reader) view of her world, and shop talk of Fortified Steam and Fortified Smoke. Fortified Steam, a discovery of Darby’s, is what powers Tom and most of the gizmos and machinery that The Paragons use every day. Powerful but dangerous, there is a reason Darby used it in small doses and kept the secret of it’s creation to himself.
My favorite part of The Falling Machine were The Paragons themselves. This group of aging superheroes has spent 20 plus years defending the city against villains, and mostly they’re in complete denial that times have changed. With the technologies invented by Darby, they have steam powered weapons, better armor, flying machines, and of course, Tom. It was highly entertaining to get this behind the scenes look at a team of superheroes, from the bickering to the costumes, to the code names and housekeeping.
It comes out right away that The Paragons are not a happy family. There is jealousy, ambition, and much elitism. Without Darby to lead them with his voice of reason, what is to become of them? When it comes down to it, nearly every member of The Paragons had good reason to get the idealist Darby out of the way.
At just shy of 300 pages, Mayer simply doesn’t have much time to develop characters, resolve subplots, or go very far into the history of The Paragons. There is a lot of interesting stuff, philosophically, happening here, making The Falling Machine a book that could only have been improved with the addition of another 50 or even 150 pages. After seeing more than a few odd editing choices, I wonder if additional material had once been there, and ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were. I was most confused by Nathaniel Winthorp – referred to as Sarah’s stepbrother, we only ever hear her father proclaim his undying love for Sarah’s late mother. But who is Nathaniel’s mother, and how did he come to be part of the Stanton family? I realize I’m picking nits, but that along with other unresolved details bothered me.
(an aside: Yes, I know, I recently said I don’t mind unresolved details, but in this particular case, the unresolved details did not add to the magic)
Although marketed to readers of all ages, The Falling Machine definitely has a young adult feel to it. With interesting characters and a very fun premise, and a story line that is episodic and fairly surface, most of the book has a comic book-y feel. That’s not a bad thing by any means, it’s just a thing. I can only assume Mayer will go into further detail in future books in this series. He’s gotta give us something, as The Falling Machine ends on quite the cliffhanger.