Steal the Sky by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I enjoyed Megan O'Keefe's story in last year's Writers of the Future Volume 30, and I enjoyed this, a better-than-average steampunk novel. It wasn't without some issues that are common in steampunk, but it was well told, the plot made sense and was well constructed, the characters weren't idiots, and it worked well as a story.
One huge problem with the steampunk genre is that very few people writing it stay within their vocabulary - they often use words that are either not quite the right words, or else are definitely the wrong words, for what they mean. I read an ARC of this book via NetGalley (in exchange for an honest review), so I don't know which of the numerous examples of this problem will be corrected by the copy editor; hopefully most of them, and all of the comma splices. (As a former editor myself, though, I know that no editor catches everything, and it's better if the writer doesn't commit the errors in the first place.)
Another feature of steampunk which could be seen as a flaw is thin worldbuilding. Often, this hinges on one, essentially magical, substance, frequently something to do with flight, which can also function as a McGuffin to drive the plot and a deus ex machina any time the plot threatens to go off the rails. In Steal the Sky, this role is taken by selium, or sel, a lighter-than-air substance (kind of a fluid, kind of a gas) which can be detected and manipulated by "sel-sensitives" with what amount to psychic powers. The idea is interestingly explored, though, and I didn't feel that the author pushed it too far or used it to paper over the cracks too often.
Something that a lot of steampunk books fail to do, and which this one succeeds at, is capturing the fight against social injustice that was so much a feature of the real, historical 19th century. All too often, the main characters are privileged, and the story becomes a clone of an imperialist Boys' Own Paper or Girls' Own Paper adventure, with the fight being against villains who want to disturb the status quo. Here, while one of the characters is a down-on-his-luck nobleman from the oldest colonial family on the conquered continent, he is fighting on the side of the oppressed, and the book's sympathies are clearly with the underdog and against the powerful.
The plot moves along well, with plenty of tension and action, but leaves time and space for some character development. Things are grim, but not grimdark or despairing. Overall, a good effort, and if the author can overcome her tendency to use incorrect homonyms and to comma splice, I think she has a bright future in the field.
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