The Iron Wyrm Affair drops us into the middle of a fight scene in a complex alternate-Victorian steampunk world. I think it was the complexity of this world that made the first couple of chapters feel slow to me, even though it started off with action and never slowed down. Emma Bannon is a top-level sorceress, a Prima, in service to Queen Victrix, current vessel of the ancient spirit Britannia. Emma is talented, beautiful, fashionable, and fiercely intelligent and has fought her way up from the gutter to be the only Prima among several male Primes. (Though she’s fashionable because she wants to be, her jewelry stores power for her and is always chosen carefully as an ensemble.) As our story begins, she’s searching for Archibald Clare, an unlicensed mentath. Here we must learn that a mentath is someone along the order of Sherlock Holmes, more intelligent than your standard-issue genius, who notices details without trying, processing them into patterns, and who will go crazy without enough information to process. Clare, having lost his license, is indeed on the verge of insanity, but Bannon is looking for him because he is the last mentath of any kind to be found in London, the rest having been recently murdered. Bannon’s out to protect Clare, but as long as he’s in her house, he might as well be useful – and all the murdered mentaths are the first pieces of a dark puzzle that leads to a threat against Queen Victrix herself. (Here I confess that I was did double takes the whole book, trying to keep straight that Bannon meant Emma and Clare, Archibald – I kept want Clare to be the woman. Oy.) Bannon is assisted by a single Shield, Mikal, a man with yellow eyes and a dark past, whom Bannon both can’t completely trust and can’t stop being attracted to (but not in a romance-novel, can’t focus on anything else kind of way, and we never see inside his head). As mentaths and sorcerers don’t really work well in close proximity, Bannon hires Ventinelli, an assassin whom Clare rightly immediately pegs as an aristocrat hiding as gutter scum, to act as Clare’s bodyguard. Bannon and Clare set off in opposite directions, she investigating the magical murder of another sorcerer as she was trying to interrogate him, and he to find out the reason there are suddenly no Prussian capacitors on the market, a line of investigation which leads to large clockwork war spiders. The combination of magic and Holmesian mystery is intriguing, the setting brought beautifully to life, the characters interesting. It’s not as funny as Gail Carriger’s Soulless, and deals much more with the dark and seamy side of politics, though with somewhat fewer serious underlying issues than The Iron Duke There are dragons and griffons here, rather than werewolves, vampires, or zombies. It still worked very well as a steampunk vision, and I’d look forward to reading more of Bannon and Clare’s adventures. It’s written for adults, and though the language is a little off-color, there’s nothing here in the way of sex or violence that action-loving teens would find exceptionable.
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