I have been long lamenting the inclusion–dare I say, the blatant shoehorning–of contemporary politics into forms of entertainment that historically have not relied upon contemporary politics at all. In order to tell a good story, you really need skill, imagination, and a fundamental understanding of humanity, human nature, and timeless principles. Not whatever insanity passes for identity politics these days.
Look, a story, or a piece of art in general, can be enjoyed despite the creator’s politics. This is usually because the artist in question doesn’t gracelessly ram politics into everything, or is so skilled that they are able to tell a story where the politics or political message is merely a part that enhances the story . . . and a non-insulting part at that.
This is why the whole Pulp Revolution movement in fiction has been so attractive to me. The idea of getting back to the roots of sci-fi and fantasy–something I wish would happen in rock music as well–in order to inform the spirit of current stories has been a breath of fresh air. This, coupled with the Superversive movement, has led me to many highly enjoyable works of fiction.
I’ve written about several of these, and I’m here to write about another fantastic entry into the burgeoning pulp/superversive scene: Jon Del Arroz‘s For Steam and Country: Book One of the Adventures of Baron Von Monocle.
This is Jon’s second full-length novel, and it is a great one. I had a smile on my face the whole time reading it. Though it’s billed as a YA (young adult) novel, there’s enough here to keep adults entertained, especially since one of the book’s biggest themes is the relationship between a daughter and her father. This aspect is what gives For Steam and Country its heart.
Sixteen-year-old Zaira Von Monocle in a tiny village in the kingdom of Rislandia, alone save for her pet ferret Toby. Her mother had passed away several years ago, and her father, the swashbuckling Theodore Von Monocle, often absent due to his dangerous missions as an airship captain on behalf of Rislandia’s King Malaky, has been missing for two years. When her father’s attorney shows up at her door after a strange earthquake rocks her village, Zaira learns that her father has been legally declared dead, that he had been a baron . . . and that his title and property is, according to his will, bequeathed to Zaira. Including the late Baron’s airship, the Liliana, named after Zaira’s mother!
This is where the adventure kicks off, and although Jon bills this book as “steampunk,” it manages to avoid some of the more grating tropes of that genre. Everything is bright and fun and, while there is death and danger, seeing the world through the eyes of the impetuous-yet-uncertain, brave-yet-vulnerable Zaira gives it all a fresh perspective. How Jon got into the head of a teenage girl, I’m not sure, but it gives the narrative unique charm.
And speaking of unique, I am a big fan of fantasy settings that are different from the enjoyable though well-trodden “medieval quasi-European” settings most fantasy stories crib, a la J.R.R. Tolkien. Hey, I mean, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. But it’s nice to change things up.
Rislandia is slightly reminiscent of Victorian England, as most steampunk tales are, with a smattering of early 20th century Europe and a lot of fantastical wonder like something out of a Studio Ghibi production. In fact, I think “fantastical” is the perfect word, because Jon really gives Rislandia a sense of otherworldly vibrancy. The vibe is also akin to a 1930s action-adventure movie (think Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin HoodCaptain Blood).
The action is brisk, the characters are each memorable, and nothing feels out of place. The world of For Steam and Country is fascinating, and Jon provides enough tantalizing clues as to its scope to make me eager for the next several books in the series. The mythos, while interesting, is a little shoved-in near the end, but not to the book’s detriment. What really struck me the most, however, is the Zaira’s connection to her lost father, and the powerful bond between parent and child. This, along with the universal desire to be something, is For Steam and Country‘s motivating through-line.
And hey! No politics! At all. No lectures, no hectoring, no hackneyed metaphors or comparisons to the “real world,” and no messages save for those that are universal: family, love, the wonder of discovery, the pain of growth, and bravery in the face of unimaginable evil.
I cannot recommend For Steam and Country enough. If modern sci-fi or fantasy leaves you cold, annoyed, or worse, bored, give For Steam and Country a try. Knowing Jon, there will be more to come. And soon.