Book Review: “The Society of Steam, book 1: The Falling Machine” by Andrew P. Mayer

4/10 Very flawed, lacks polish and quality.

In an alternate 1880, steam-powered super heroes, the Paragons, use their technology to fight crime and equally steam-powered villains. Sarah Stanton, a young woman, is denied becoming a hero but is the only one who can save the Paragons from destruction.

The Falling Machine delivers its superhero premise swiftly and handles it mostly well. The heroes have larger-than-life personas and unique outfits that tie into their steam-powered abilities. This could have been a comic book series of the 80s or 90s, even down to a few impossibly good-looking characters. The story is about the decline of the Paragons, and the villains who turn to new and frightening tactics to destroy their enemies. It primarily follows Sarah, a 19-year-old who wishes to become a hero. Her father, perhaps the most famous of the Paragons, is an old-fashioned man trying to decide what’s best for his daughter. There’s a good deal of early feminism in Sarah’s character arc, which is fine, but her characterization mostly boils down to, “she’s not like other girls.”

Most of the other characters, including the soulless Automaton who is naïve and lovable, fit into familiar tropes. We even get a steampunk Obi-Wan. There aren’t really any surprises in the sizable cast of characters. The story itself also follows familiar threads, but at least accents it with elements unique to the setting. The real shining element of the story is the setting and concept. Steampunk super heroes in an alternate 1880. But is that enough glue to hold the book together?

Perhaps if the glue was reinforced with good writing. It isn’t. I had first read the book years ago when it released and enjoyed it. But I’ve since broadened my horizon with more reading, more writing, and when I tried to return, I was disappointed. The prose has problems. The pacing has severe problems. Scenes, especially early on when we’re being introduced to lots of characters, will stop dead to not only give us overly detailed descriptions but also provide plenty of backstory so when the scene mercifully gets moving again, we know everything about this person. It’s as if you took the adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and reversed it. And the story on a larger scale also has pacing issues. We start with a bang but soon reduce to a crawl before we’ve gotten very far and spend more time than is necessary on scenes that only seem to pad the book with more backstory and explanations.

Good writing can hold up generic, trope characters, it’s happened before; and likewise, great characters can hold up weak prose or plot. But a book falls apart if the writing, characters, and story are all underwhelming. There isn’t anything I’d say is awful about the book, but other than the setting and concept, nothing stands out either.

I once enjoyed the book and planned to read the series. It never happened and may never happen. This wasn’t sold as YA back in the day, I’m not sure if YA had shelf space in bookstores at the time, but to me, it reads like a YA book. Younger readers won’t be as tired of the tropes and will be more forgiving for the pacing issues and the writing. But this one is no longer for me.

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