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The Steam Magnate
Dana Copithorne
Aio Publishing, 313 pages

The Steam Magnate
Dana Copithorne
Dana Copithorne holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology and has studied Shamanic religions in Siberia, Japanese culture, Zen aesthetics, and Japanese and Buddhist architectural traditions. She has taught the English language in Japan and has been honoured by the Czechoslovak Arts and Sciences Society with the Dr Josef Hasek Award for her paper, published in the central European journal Kosmos, linking socio-political reality in the Czech Republic with Czech science fiction and other literatures. She is also a talented artist in watercolour and pen-and-pencil media, and provided artwork for The Steam Magnate drawn from her love of architecture and landscape. She resides in Vancouver, Canada, where she is currently at work on a sequel.

ISFDB Bibliography
Dana Copithorne page on Aio Web Site
Dana Copithorne Art Portfolio

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

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I'm going to start this review by breaking one of the great unwritten rules: that of not judging a book by its cover. In fact, I'll go further than that and judge the book by its entire physical appearance; for The Steam Magnate has been made with such great care and attention that it's clear Aio is a publisher that loves its books -- and it makes one excited to find out what kind of story is held within the pages.

So...

Kyra is sent by the Heiress Veridi to the Broken Glass City (so named for the shards of glass covering its structures) where she must find a man named Eson and take from him a certain deed. Eson has inherited his family's hot springs in the northern mountains, and is in control of the electricity generated by them -- but more than that, the springs also grant him the power to bind others to himself through deeds like the one Kyra has been instructed to retrieve (which binds Veridi to him).

Kyra gets close to him by posing as Sarah, a woman with whom Eson has been corresponding but has never met -- but inadvertently binds herself to him by doing so. She and an inventor named Jado become drawn into Eson's plans to gain power in the coastal town of Waters Rising. And members of a group of debtors bound to Eson (a group which includes Sarah and Jado) seeks Kyra's help in freeing themselves from his deeds and reviving a power source of their own within the city.

The background which Dana Copithorne has created is distinctive and intriguing. Electrical and mechanical technology with a whiff of magic underneath it all (there are some delightful notions, like an artificial bird that serves as a video camera), but not strictly modern, or medieval, or even steampunk. It reminds me, of all things (though I'm sure it's unintentional), of the techno-magical worlds found in games like Myst (though without all the wandering about). And I got a strong sense (created not just through Copithorne's words, but also her wonderful illustrations, and even the design of the book itself) of cleanliness, which contrasts sharply with the muck and grime of many of today's urban fantasies. This persisted even when the author was describing things that certainly weren't clean -- which just goes to show what a powerful atmosphere she creates. The Broken Glass City itself is suitably otherworldly (the lack of place names is a particularly effective device for this); but it doesn't quite feel like a fully-fledged fantasy city in the manner of an Ambergris or an Ankh-Morpork, in the sense that it feels like a backdrop (albeit a very well realized one) rather than a character. But there is time for that to develop in future tales.

That's the setting; what of the story itself? Well, Copithorne's writing is vivid and compelling; one is keen to keep reading to find out what happens, but... But it's hard not to feel frustrated by the novel (or so I found, at least). For one thing, it is unclear precisely what sort of power Eson has over those bound to him, or what the intervention that his debtors seek from Kyra will actually do (for example, the cover blurb suggests that Eson can take people's "good fortune" for himself, but sometimes it all felt like a straightforward dispute over energy supplies). And, as the final pages turn, it becomes apparent that we're not going to find out. "Nothing ever resolves, it only changes," says Copithorne on the final page; whilst that's true, it's a risky strategy to have your story just end rather than resolve, and I don't think it pays off here.

There are also some problems with characterization in The Steam Magnate. Kyra and Jado spend most of the novel under Eson's influence; and since one is never sure how far that influence extends, it's hard to be sure whether they act of their own accord or of Eson's, and thereby hard to really get inside their heads. As for Eson himself, he feels like a missed opportunity. Of course, he has grown up with his power, so he'll probably see it as "right" but a bit more exploration of the moral conflict would have been interesting, especially as Copithorne hints that Eson is just as bound to his power as his debtors are to him.

These have been fairly complex criticisms of a book that is nevertheless worth reading; have no doubt that Copithorne is a welcome and promising new voice in the field. The Steam Magnate is always readable, always interesting; but I think its author will produce something even better in the future.

Copyright © 2007 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.


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