Monday, December 1, 2014

Reader's Review: "First Light" (Dawn of Steam #1) by Jeffrey Cook

Synopsis from Amazon:
In 1815, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, two of England's wealthiest lords place a high-stakes wager on whether a popular set of books, which claim that the author has traveled to many unknown corners of the globe, are truth or, more likely, wild fiction. First Light is an epistolary novel, told primarily through the eyes of former aide-de-camp Gregory Conan Watts, describing the journeys of the airship Dame Fortuna and its crew through journals and letters to his beloved fiancee. The first recruit is, necessarily, the airship's owner: war hero, famed genius, and literal knight in steam-powered armor Sir James Coltrane. Persuading him to lend his talents and refitted airship to the venture requires bringing along his sister, his cousin, and the crew that flew with him during the Napoleonic Wars. Only with their aid can they track down a Scottish rifleman, a pair of shady carnies, and a guide with a strong personal investment in the stories. When they set out, the wild places of the world, including the far American West, the Australian interior, darkest Africa, and other destinations are thought to be hostile enough. No one expects the trip to involve a legendary storm - or the Year Without a Summer of 1815-1816. The voyage is further complicated by the human element. Some parties are not at all happy with the post-war political map. Most problematic of all, the crew hired by the other side of the wager seem willing to win by any means necessary. Dawn of Steam: First Light follows these adventurers, as they open up the world. In the process, their journey helps lay the foundations for an age of enlightenment and technology to come.
My Review:
It is a rare day when I can get thrills from historical fiction. Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly legitimate genre--but when there isn't the "freedom" for action and colorful characters, or the writer seems compelled to make a schmaltzy love story out of it... Let me just say I would only pick an historical fiction novel for two reasons:

1. It is an author I am already familiar with and I enjoy their style of writing;
2. I have read every other non-romantic fiction novel in the entire library.

That being said, First Light defied my expectations for an historical adventure fiction novel. The closest I can compare it to would probably be the Allan Quatermain novels by H. Rider Haggard, which bored me so much that I stopped reading halfway through—and I do not do that lightly. 
Maybe retrospection increases creativity and eases idyllicizing the time period, which is why authors today are better able to paint an exciting and glamorized picture of the early nineteenth century than the authors who experienced the reality of the time period firsthand—

But I digress.

Those who are familiar with my blog know of a post I wrote a while ago called "How to Book." In it, I delineated three major points that, if followed, are nearly guaranteed to produce quality, worthwhile literature. Of course, the post was more a rant against those books I had recently read that did not follow these guidelines; I probably didn't think I would find a book that actually scored on all three points.

Then again, I had not yet read First Light.

The unorthodox format is ripe for flatness and a blasé, static plot: a series of letters and journal entries, most of them from the point of view of only one character, with perhaps ten lines of dialogue in the whole thing. How on earth could an author take something like that and pass it off as something more than a long treatise on someone's opinion with all the intrigue of a thesis paper?

This is where my three guidelines come into play.

My first point was that writers who want to produce excellent literature should think first, then write.
Yes, I majored in English—but that was only because I am far more comfortable on paper than I am at public speaking, which meant that journalism or communications was not an option for me. I did consider at one point about becoming a linguist because if there is one thing I love most about English, it is the precise and deliberate use of language. This is why I feel something like physically ill when reading unfettered stream-of-consciousness like Gertrude Stein or Faulkner—the rambling stringing together of words with no regards to syntax or coherence is maddening. That is not to say that ALL stream-of-consciousness is terrible; I have read some unorthodox styles of writing that I regard as gorgeous because I can tell from the feelings evoked by the precise phrasing that the author thought very intentionally to write the words he or she did, in that order, to bring just the right feelings or images. 

This same deliberation is what gives First Light its incredible, vibrant realism. Within seconds of reading, I was transported two hundred years in the past. I was Cordelia, receiving the next communication from my beloved Gregory. I was Lord Donovan, understanding the progress made on the mission upon which I had sent a man I trusted to give me an accurate report. There was a lot of detail that went into the writing of this novel—but as far as I can tell, there was not one term out of place. The language was every bit what one might expect for a Victorian-era journalist, within his scope of understanding. This is where Cook really shines in his use of the "epistolary narrative" (yes, that's what it's called!) because he ends up describing major events at least three times, as a personal journal entry, as a report to Lord Donovan, and as a letter to Cordelia, and the language is just slightly different (but appropriately so!) each time, so one may gain a remarkably distinct picture of the events described. Even in instances where certain events happen "in the span of an instant"—something that is difficult to manage in a traditional narrative—Cook manages to give the impression of recollection on Gregory's part, while maintaining a sense of urgency and speed in his pacing.

My second point was that writers who want to produce lasting literature should not "neglect their lines." 
This would be the "down time" between action sequences, which lets the reader first of all breathe, so that the book is not over in one big rush, and second, we get to experience the characters as they naturally are, according to their personalities, and not just what they're like when someone's trying to kill them.
Again, Cook shines. It would be very easy to just "pick and choose" the letters that contain exciting bits—or it might also be a clever trap to start rambling and meandering as some people do in the context of a personal letter. But not here. In the down time, we are being entertained by the colorful cast and becoming better acquainted, so that when danger does strike, we are genuinely fearful for "our dear friends' well-being"—and these are fictional characters, who exist only as text on a page, if you want to get technical about it! But the characters are so much like friends, that if you were to mention the name of a character, I would instantly conjure an image in my mind. That's how real and wonderful these characters were. A masterful use of "lines", indeed!

My third and final point was that good writing would feed the mind and enrich the life, not isolate or confuse.
Wow, I now think I know more about the workings of various steampunk objects than I ever have before—and also, I think I may have picked up a better understanding of how the modern equipment works, as well! And yet I never felt like I was reading a textbook. Gregory's descriptions in the letters to his wife were simplified and more practical than technical, very much geared toward a woman's logic; the descriptions in his reports to Lord Donovan were more on the technical side, as would be expected in man-to-man communication, but at the same time they were also direct, so no wasted verbiage there, either. Anything like geography and topography that would run the risk of being too much like a "dump" of useless (to the reader) information was nearly deferred with the phrase "I have included pictures", leaving it up to the reader's imagination just what those pictures contained, without cluttering up the story by concocting a painfully accurate description of every minute detail. Well played, sir!

As I expressed in my first point, I felt totally engaged by the characters and involved in this part of their lives the whole time I was reading. It made me laugh; it made me anxious; it blew my mind, and it made me ponder; it took my breath away, and it warmed my heart. I am only too thrilled to recommend this book to history buffs and steampunk/adventure lovers alike! If you're tired of the everlasting vampires and endless government conspiracies and yearn for the good old days of the traditional adventure novel from the early days of Manifest Destiny—Dawn of Steam: First Light is definitely for you!