Dana Copithorne, The Steam Magnate. Aio Publishing, 320 pages. It begins, "Kyra arrived late at night, on a crowded, rattling steam engine, at an ancient place called the 'City of Mirrors' or the 'Broken Glass City', depending on the language used. The city earns these names from stained glass that has been superimposed onto the exteriors of the walls and walkways, as though glass were shattered and thrown about into patterns, some random, others deliberate." And that is an introduction to the beauties and failings of the book. The language is rough, rough enough so that I wonder at the author's background, yet it suggests a beautiful place. So, Kyra, an unsuccessful thief, is caught and sent on a mission, which entangles her with Eson, the steam magnate of the title, wealthy energy magnate and wizard of a world without fossil fuels. Their story, and those of the people they magically bind, is told in calm, elliptical prose and elegant little sketches. Much of the story takes place in the Broken Glass City, a beautiful plains city connected to the world by trains, with a capricious, arbitrary ruling class, and old, strange earth magic. It is not like any fantasy setting I have previously encountered; instead it is dreamily central European; the author is a student of Czech culture. Magnate is the opposite of an intensely plotted, driving story. The story unfolds slowly, dreamily, and the prose is distancing, telling rather than showing. Yet persistence is worthwhile. The setting is memorable, and it does turn out, eventually, that there is a story.
The Steam Magnate falls between genres, and probably could not have been published by any major house. The book is a production of Aio Publishing, a South Carolina small press and the line editing is appalling. Even in the one paragraph I quoted there are problems. I don't think Kyra arrived on a steam engine; it was probably by steam train, or perhaps steam railcar. "Broken Glass City" is awkward, unidiomatic; perhaps the author might have preferred "City of Broken Glass" (and the single scare quotes, unusual in US typography, are probably unnecessary). The elegant little illustrations which the author provided are, sadly, poorly reproduced in the book interior; the colored cover, at least, fares a bit better. And so on. Yet a heavier editorial hand might have produced a lesser book and let's not even think about major-house art direction. With small press and library distribution, Magnate is not going to be selling huge numbers of copies, but it's a handsome and worthy book.
Emma Bull, Territory. Tor, 320 pages.
It's hard to write a short review of truly original work; one can't say what it's like, and too much citing of the text steals the author's thunder, and makes the review too long. So, then. Territory is the backstory of the shootout at the OK Corral. It has magic, of the confused intuitive sort (even most of the characters don't really know how it works), a romance, feminism, multi-culturalism. The descriptions of the Arizona frontier setting are eloquent and clear, and the plot drives along quickly, with many unexpected twists. Bull has something of Rowling's great gift for exposition: a great deal happens in the book: there are many well-developed minor characters; a great deal of rather technical material is covered, from magic to horse-training to Victorian social dance, and it all goes down as smoothly as Gatorade on a hot Arizona day. The ethical dilemmas of the characters and situations are equally smoothly engaged. It is perhaps too short, nonetheless; it's not too hard to imagine the story told at greater length and being the stronger for it. Bull has gotten the old pulp Western to stand up and dance. Come and see.