“Welcome to a new America that is built on blood, sweat, and gears…
In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother’s death. Then he’s offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers-and now in the hands of an ancient Strange who was banished to walk this Earth.
In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he’s going to save his brother and reclaim his soul once and for all…”
On occasion, you have to determine whether or not the positive aspects of a novel outweigh the (entirely subjective) drawbacks that dogged the story, which proved to be my experience once Dead Iron was done, the last page turned. Considering how completely I embraced the cover and premise, my expectation was flat-out love. In actuality, I liked the book, certain bits and bobs that comprised the whole very much, and will most definitely meet up with Cedar Hunt once more when the sequel, Tin Swift, is released this July. Love, though? That’s a mighty strong word; one I can’t throw around with sincerity, despite the fact that I would, in the end, recommend this title (with caveats).
My enjoyment of the story stems, first and foremost, from Monk’s language. One key piece of writing advice handed out at nearly every turn in a writer’s life is ‘show, don’t tell’; this book, composed of strong, evocative language, illustrates why that advice is not only valid, but how it elevates storytelling, allowing the reader to not only see what’s happening, but to smell and feel it alongside the characters. That was most certainly the case here – for me. It should be said, however, that if copious use of metaphors and similes sets your eye to twitching, well, you may not find the writing as lovely as I did. (It should also be said, just to clarify, that the language isn’t flowery or saccharine. At times it’s quite simple in the comparison it draws: “Sound was lost inside this cavern like a scream behind a gag.” The writing has an abundance of shades and tones.) Additionally – and this is a personal preference – the western setting allowed Monk the opportunity to inject a wonderful, leisurely drawl that seeped into the atmosphere as well as the dialogue. A skillfully inserted – and judiciously used – reckon gets me every time. As does the manners of the time period, which are as often employed to veil threats and cautions as to be polite.
Next up on the list of things that rang my bell: the characters. Going in, you should know that there are a lot of them, and that the chapters alternate between Cedar Hunt, Jeb and Mae Lindson, Rose Small, and the villain of the piece, Shard Lefel, whose paths are twined from the beginning. And while the narrative doesn’t rely on them to the same degree, there are others: the Madder brothers and Mr. Shunt, for instance. While their lives aren’t laid bare – meaning there are hints of backstory that remain unexplored throughout the entirety of the novel – there’s enough there, or there was for me, to become invested in the majority of them; Cedar, Rose, and the Madder brothers most notably. From the start, I knew Cedar was going to appeal to me. He’s a man struggling under the weight of grief; cursed by the gods with a dual nature that would turn an educated, rational man into a ravenous, destructive force; and, in true gentleman cowboy fashion, his word is his bond, he’s kind to women and children, and can handle himself in a fight. Rose is this lovely mix of quirk and grit; a woman ostracized for being thought different, erroneously judged and considered to be touched in the head. And the Madders? Well, they’re brothers – one of my biggest weaknesses – and they’re not at all what they seem. I ricocheted like a steel ball in a pinball machine between irritation, exasperation, and delight when it came to those three. In the end? Maybe I really can throw the word love around, because they managed to wrest it from me.
As for the drawbacks…
One was simple enough: a tendency toward repetition. Of thoughts, action, and concepts or motivation. Knowing I would struggle to explain this, I marked down an example. The following two snippets are taken from consecutive paragraphs:
“They circled the boy, brushing against him to smell, to record, to savor the blood of the child who helped bind metal to a dead man’s flesh.”
“…tears streaming his face, as the free matics touched and stroked and sniffed and plucked, scenting, tasting, recording him.”
This is an extreme case; the word record is used twice, for instance, and essentially both paragraphs are describing the same situation with very little variation. One would have served the story’s purpose just fine. There were other times when something similar occurred, but maybe it was a character having the same thought or expressing the same motive within too short a span of words. Repetition is something I struggle to tolerate in books and encountering it has been a deal breaker more than once. Here, though? While I observed it happening – even shook my head a bit at how unnecessary and avoidable it was – the repetition didn’t dim my appreciation of the writing. Still, it seemed worth pointing out.
Also, and this is just picking up on something I stated above, the alternating points of view didn’t allow the reader the time to get to know any of the characters deeply. Pasts are hinted at, possibilities introduced, and the threads that are left dangling from the spool might prove to be frustrating or disappointing to some. It didn’t have either effect on me. I enjoyed the mystery – the Madders are a prime example, and I’m still not certain what they’re all about – and look forward to learning more about each of them turn as the series continues. The biggest problem with this angle might be that the villain is not as effective for not fully understanding what led him to the course he chose to set out on.
Finally, the story’s focus is rather limited despite several things going on around the crux of it. Each character seems to have one fairly clear goal and they are determined in their pursuit. To that end, and, again, despite events whirling like a dervish around the main conflict, you may think that the story doesn’t have much momentum. Does that make sense? It wasn’t that it was slow – I read it in a matter of hours – or boring, or without action, but…it may feel superficial. That sounds awful, and perhaps it’s not even accurate, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a way to explain it. And that may be due in part to the fact that it just didn’t bother me beyond realizing that others might be put off by it.
When all is said and done, I think the book will stand on whether or not you enjoy the writing and are invested enough in the characters as they are presented in the here and now of what’s happening to them. It worked for me for both of those reasons.
Before I wrap this up, a favorite bit of dialogue that packs a whole lot of insight into Cedar’s character, but is also just remarkably well-done. Set-up: Cedar has gone to the Madder’s to acquire a tool to assist in his hunt for a missing boy. This is what one of the brothers says to him after agreeing to give him what he wants…at a cost:
“You’re a cautious man for someone who uses a gun to end his sentences…”