The Steam Magnate
by Dana Copithorne
Review by Sam Lubell
Aio Publishing Company Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1933083085
Date: 30 September, 2006 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The publishers of The Steam Magnate: A Novel of the Broken Glass City list it as a fantasy. Personally, I think it's an intriguing, although slightly flawed, novel from another planet, or possibly a very alternate Earth. There's no traditional magic or spells, except for one character's never explained ability to tap the life energy of debtors who sign his contracts, but there are mechanical birds with camera eyes, solar batteries, and other devices. The world is not the typical medieval fantasy realm but a mix of technologies where phone calls and trains are common but some futuristic technology is available from the "old world" or cobbled together by tinkerers.
Kyra, a servant sent to the Broken Glass City to obtain the contract binding her mistress to Eson, the steam magnate of the title, instead spends much of her time sightseeing and making friends. After receiving a stern warning from an unknown person, she befriends Eson by pretending to be Sarah, a woman whom Eson had a long correspondence but never met in person. The two leave the city to go to Eson's home in the mountains. When Eson leaves for a business trip, Kyra receives additional instructions that send her looking through his papers where she discovers a contract giving Eson control over the life, mind, or wellbeing of several people, including Sarah or someone who acts in her guise. But Kyra, although she wonders if this applies to her, does nothing in response.
This is only one of several points where characters do not act as one would expect. The first time Eson calls Kyra by her real name (p73), neither mentions anything about the deception being found out. Eson seems strongly attached to Sarah based on her letters to him, yet makes no attempt to find her after learning that the women he thought was Sarah was an impostor.
The book alternates between Eson's first-person narrative and sections about the other characters, mostly Kyra, told in the third person. Still there is a strange reserve in the descriptions and the characters never seem alive. After meeting Eson, Kyra seems subdued by his presence and Eson has special reasons for keeping himself under control. Gradually over the novel Kyra gains more vibrancy and control over her own destiny, and those of others, while Eson seems to become diminished.
The author's strength is in descriptions of the city and the contrast with the mountains where Eson lives. The author is clearly more interested in the setting than the plot or even the characters. The book is oddly illustrated by very rough pencil drawings of the buildings and gardens, with an occasional, very tiny, stick-figuresque human mainly there to show scale.
Although a first novel, this reads more like an experienced author's experiment; its flaws are not the usual flaws of an unsure novice author. Dana Copithorne does not follow the usual formulas for science fiction or fantasy, but instead goes in new directions. The Steam Magnate is the type of odd book ideally suited for the small press. It doesn't fit into easy categories but has a certain subtlety of its own. The book is not for everyone, or even most for most people. Still, those who have a taste for the unconventional, who are willing to overlook a book's flaws while savoring a unique flavor, may find The Steam Magnate worth a chance. The book can be found at www.aiopublishing.com.