The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

The Iron Wyrm Affair (Bannon and Clare)

It has taken me a while to get comfortable with the steampunk genre.  At first it didn’t appeal to me, but now I find that I sometimes get into a steampunk series and enjoy it.  Personally, though, I think that the worldbuilding has to be handled very skillfully or the story will fail.  Lilith Saintcrow’s newest novel, The Iron Wyrm Affair, is unfortunately too scattered to work well.

(Description nicked from B&

“Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.

In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.”

First, let me say that the author has some engaging ideas about turning England into a steampunk setting.  The Victorian period is perfect, as the Industrial Revolution provides an excellent backdrop of machines and inventiveness.  Saintcrow has populated her setting with clockwork horses and lots of iron and smoke, and it’s not at all difficult to visualize London in this fashion.

The problem is with the author’s execution of the setting and plot.  For the most part, I had no clue what the rules of this setting were.  Clare is a “mentath”, which seems to mean someone who works with logic, but there also seems to be a magical component as well, which isn’t explained.  There are runes used in spellwork called “charms” and “charters”, and those aren’t explained either.  There are dragons and other mythical creatures, but how they fit in remains a matter of conjecture.

As for the characters, it’s clear that the author based Clare on Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes—Clare has the same manic energy and multiplicity of focus.  This isn’t a characterization that plays well on the page, though.  Plus, the character seems incapable of functioning if things don’t adhere to the rules of logic, which makes his association with a sorceress problematic at best.  Bannon is a more likeable and understandable character, but there are a lot of hints about her backstory that float around without getting explored.

Overall, this novel feels like it should have been book two or three of a series, not book one.  There is too much within that isn’t explained, and there’s no real footing for a reader to get their bearings in this universe.  While reading, my attention kept wandering, and that’s not a good sign, as I tend to get lost in books and lose track of time.  I just didn’t find enough in this novel to hold my interest.

Although it has some neat worldbuilding ideas, The Iron Wyrm Affair suffers from some muddled characters and too many things that the reader is supposed to just infer from the narrative.  While infodumps are a no-no, some basic background would have been nice.  I don’t think I’ll be continuing with this series in the future.

Also by this author: Angel Town, Dead Man Rising, Heaven’s Spite, Saint City Sinners

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on December 2, 2012.

Series: Bannon and Clare
ISBN: 9780316201261
Publisher: Orbit
Page Count: 320
Publication Date: August 7, 2012
Acquired: Provided by the publisher
Author Website
Read an excerpt