Jon Del Arroz’s steampunk YA novel, For Steam and Country, shows a lot of promise, but unfortunately it too often typifies what I like least about both steampunk and YA.
Sixteen-year-old Zaira von Monocle has lived alone on her family farm since her mother died and her father disappeared. All that changes when her father’s attorney—and a confidant of the king—Mr. du Gearsmith arrives to inform her that, after two years, her father has been declared officially dead. Meaning Zaira inherits his airship. From there begins an adventure culminating in a daring mission deep into the hostile Wyranth Empire.
While I love flintlock fantasy and mannerpunk, I am less enthusiastic about true steampunk, and I rarely read YA. The biggest problem with For Steam and Country is that there is much too much of what I don’t like about those. We have this awesome, giant airship. Good! Tell me about it! But little is said.
On the YA side, Zaira is immature and incompetent. Sure, she’s only sixteen…but she’s been living on her own, managing a farm for two years. She has no reason to know anything about an airship. And to see an incompetent, or at least ignorant, protagonist become competent can be an extremely fulfilling character arc. But they better start getting competent quick. Incompetence is realistic and, like real-life, boring. I’ll take a Mary Sue over an anti-Mary Sue any day (Zaira’s neighbor James, on the other hand, is a Mary Sue to a T). Zaira does show flashes of ability. These are two of the best scenes in the book.
The characters also talk in a very modern fashion, something common to both steampunk and YA. It’s not to my taste, but less grating in an early modern setting. But while the writing in general is stilted, the dialogue in particular could have used a lot of work.
For all my complaints, For Steam and Country is an enjoyable read and shows promise. With the exception of James, the characters are interesting and likeable and “real.” For all of the uneven dialogue and short time together, there is a real depth to the relationships between the characters. A particular highlight is Captain von Cravat, and her relationship with Zaira. There is also some interesting worldbuilding, particularly in regard to mysterious goings around in the Wyranth Empire. I would have like to have seen more done with it in this book, but there is a lot to explore as the series progresses.
That cover, by the way? Awesome. More self-published and small press authors need to invest in artwork of that quality.
3 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: Jon sent me a review copy of For Steam and Country.