Remember last week I said I don’t like writing bad reviews, but occasionally I have to? Yeah, well, it’s back. Still not fun, but sometimes you just gotta hunker down and do the deed.
I picked up Gears of a Mad God a while back, in a frenzy of Steampunk book buying. I have a bad habit of doing that, getting too enthusiastic and going hooty-wild on a book buying binge. Which may explain why my To Be Read pile looks so much like Mount Everest. I had high hopes of it: a combination of Steampunk and Lovecraft is like catnip to me. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver.
First complaint, before we even get into the plot. The cover says “steampunk.” I’m not entirely sure what it was, but this book was not really steampunk. When I first started writing, my mother (my first editor and biggest booster) said that I suffered from something she called “White Room Syndrome.” White Room Syndrome is pretty much what it sounds like: the setting is so vague and unexplored that it seems like the entire story is taking place in a plain white room. This book felt that way to me. Honestly, other than the goggles on the cover art, a brief mention of clockmaking, and the zeppelin ride in the first bit, there’s nothing here that screams Steampunk to me. I actually thought I’d stumbled into a mislabeled Dieselpunk book there for a bit; the setting (the 1920’s), the mention of automobiles and President Harding muddle it even further. It’s not that I automatically reject any of these things appearing in a Steampunk setting. But the author needs to firmly anchor me in the Steampunk before muddying the waters; this book didn’t do that, and left me confused as heck.
The whole thing was Vague. Bland, white room. Not steampunk, not really anything else.
Moving on…. The basic story is that Colleen, who works in a clock shop (is she a clock maker? Does she own the clock shop? What’s she working on and why? Never clearly established), receives news that her Uncle Rod (whom supposedly she loved desperately but hadn’t been close to (???) and hadn’t communicated with in a long time) has committed suicide. She immediately packs up and leaves to go to his home, entailing a three day trip across Canada. No funeral, no question of a funeral, no mourning to speak of, no will, no nothing. She just ups and leaves, for no reason that I could figure out. En route she discovers that Uncle Rod had supposedly attacked a schoolhouse full of children with an ax, and had been in police custody at the time of his death. The attack had been out of character for Uncle Rod, which of course Colleen would know from the six times in her entire life that she’d met him.
Upon arrival, she briefly meets up with Jane, Uncle Rod’s lady friend, and realizes she’s being followed by a man she doesn’t know. Oooh, this sounds more interesting. Frightened, and who wouldn’t be, she flees this man, only to be confronted by something even more frightening: a gang of men who try to abduct her. She puts up a good fight, and is assisted by the original dude who was following her. Turns out he’s one of the Good Guys.
Okay, here’s another thing that bugs me about some stories, not just this one. Before the vicissitudes of life put a stop to it, I spent a bit of my youth studying martial arts: tae kwon do, some Eastern weapons forms, fencing, archery, sharpshooting, etc. And I’m here to tell you, it’s not simply a matter of picking up a sword and making like Errol Flynn, or grabbing a pistol and pretending you’re Dirty Harry. It takes skill, it takes dedication, it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. You don’t just pick up a pistol and use it like a pro, simply by “watching how the others do it” as Colleen does in this story.
And anybody who has been in a real fight can tell you, pretending to hit somebody in a nice, safe classroom setting and actually hitting somebody with intent to hurt them is NOT THE SAME THING. There are reasons why soldiers and policemen are trained the way they are; intending to hurt somebody, even in self-defense, requires a mindset that the average person does NOT have naturally. It must be trained into being or forced by circumstances.
Calm down, AJ. Deep breaths. Step away from the sharp implements, there’s a good little maniac. Good, good, just keep breathing. Feeling better? Then let’s press onward….
So it turns out that the first guy, the one who had been following her and ended up helping her against the other guys who had been following her? His name is Dirk Smith; him and his buddy Mr. Carter are FBI agents (in Canada? Really?) fighting against this cult who worship a Lovecraftian thingie, and want an artifact that Uncle Rod may or may not have possessed. The cultists are trying to snatch Colleen in hopes that she’ll hand over said artifact. Turns out Uncle Rod didn’t commit suicide; he was killed by the cultists. From there, the story becomes a straight adventure: kidnappings, knife fights, mad chases through Chinatown and the waterfront, the usual suspects, right up to the big climax, whch isn’t actually a climax at all, but rather a sequel tease.
The story is touted as Lovecraftian Steampunk. I’ve already commented on the vagueness of the steampunk. Let me also point out that there’s precious little Lovecraftian about the story. Okay, there’s nothing Lovecraftian about it. Yeah, cultists are bad guys. But there’s nothing Lovecraftian about them; they could be a cult of mad accountants, and it wouldn’t make a word of difference to the plot.
Speaking of plot…. In a couple of other book reviews I’ve talked about stories having breakneck pacing. I love an action-packed story; the more exciting the story, the faster I read it. But there’s a difference between pushing the speed limit, and trying to reach escape velocity. This story moves so fast that I feel like the author lost control of the thing. Too, too fast. There’s no chance to sort out who belongs to what name, much less to make an emotional connection to anybody or anything. I read the book twice; once last week, and then again this weekend, in anticipation of writing this review. I still can’t keep the good guys straight in my head, or why Colleen decided to trust them, considering her circustances.
Don’t get me wrong: the story is not without its merits. If you like action-packed stories, this is definitely the one for you. And the author does a good job describing the action, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. And Colleen is a likeable character, even if she is a bit unrealistic and has more than her share of “Too Stupid to Live” moments and at least one glaring possession by the Goddes of Mary Sue.
But with that said, Gears of a Mad God still mostly reads like the first draft of a much better story; another editing pass would have improved it out of all measure. You may find it to be terrific, and more power to you. But if you want my opinion, there are better books out there.
BTW: This is the first in a series. Some of the reviewers on Goodreads say the later books are better written. If any of you can report back on that, please, tell us in the comments. Personally, I’m not motivated to read further without a positive recommendation from you, Loyal Reader.