Harry Takes Off by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a copy from the author, who I know on social media, for purposes of review.
Reading a book that positions itself as steampunk is the triumph of hope over experience for me. This is because, almost without exception, the execution fails to measure up to the ideas. Fails by a wide margin. The average steampunk book is poorly written, both in terms of story and in terms of basic competence with the elements of prose.
This book is that rare exception.
Firstly, Turnbull doesn't flood us with absurd gadgetry. His sole technological difference is a form of antigravity, which I think is a wise approach. We don't have steam this and brass that and clockwork the other thing, with none of them making any kind of technological or sociological sense. We have steam-powered heavier-than-air flight, and airships that can carry much greater payloads. Otherwise, it's a straight historical adventure.
Secondly, he knows how to write a pulp story. It's exciting, it occasionally stretches belief, but I forgive it because it reminds me of the thrilling adventure stories of my childhood. There aren't the problems with pacing, massive plot holes, and excessive description that so often plague the genre.
Thirdly, his characters aren't idiots. Because this is a fast-moving, action-packed, plot-driven pulp story, they don't achieve tremendous depth, perhaps, but they're sensible, pragmatic, capable, and don't get themselves into trouble by doing things that are obviously thickheaded. Nor do they need to be rescued by men, like so many steampunk heroines. Instead, they bravely escape from the Germans by themselves and take a warning to the British government, which is, of course, ignored because they are only teenage girls (and one is African). Then they bravely escape again (I did find the fact that the Sultan of Zanzibar lets the engineer sister fix, indeed improve, their aircraft while holding them captive suspiciously plot-convenient).
Fourth, he only uses vocabulary that he actually understands. This is one of the worst things about steampunk for me: the authors try to write "Victorian" and end up making a horrible hash of it, misusing words left and right and revealing their ignorance of history, language and culture. Turnbull dodges this bullet, or rather artillery shell.
I give this book my rare "well-edited" tag, which I don't think has ever been earned by a steampunk book before (several of them have got the "seriously-needs-editing" tag, though). In part, this is, of course, because Turnbull doesn't make a lot of mistakes to begin with. Quality begins with the author, and if the author makes hundreds of errors, there will be tens of errors even after a very good editor has gone over it.
A very good editor (whom I know) has gone over this, and there are very few issues left, all minor. The copy that I read came bundled with another book of Turnbull's, edited by a different person, which revealed that he has a habit of comma-splicing. There was no sign of this issue in Harry Takes Off.
Overall, a fine piece of adventure fiction, which didn't distract me from the plot by dropping constant clangers like so much steampunk does.
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