A worthy successor to Steel Victory and Steel Magic, this third volume in Gribble’s Steel Empires series continues the ambitious genre mash-up that has delighted fans of all ages forty-four through sixty-two. The official sequel to the play/film Steel Magnolias from the late ’80s, and a Sega Genesis console game from the early ’90s, the Steel Empires series began by successfully merging a story about a close-knit group of women in a small-town southern community with the plot of a side-scrolling, shoot-’em-up Steampunk videogame.
In a story that is ThunderCats meets a Chemistry Textbook meets Lord of the Rings meets your Aunt’s blog, Steel Blood expands and fortifies Gribble’s mash-up creation even more, keeping it shiny fresh, though not completely stainless.
Hints abounded within the previous novel (by way of vague news of turmoil in the far East) that the evil sorcerer-knight, Lord Jodie Shadowseizer, survived her defeat at the close of Steel Victory and was carefully forging her return to power. Now with Steel Blood, Gribble reveals Shadowseizer’s nefarious plot to regain control of the Bessemer Empire. After the failure of her armor in the crucible of the Battle of Anthracite Plains, Shadowseizer has fled to the realms of L’in-K’in to steal the power of dragons for her own, to infuse herself with the ultimate amalgam of their steel blood! Within the library of the humanoid feline city of Thun-darr, Shadowseizer consults the spells of the mystical L’in-K’in Logs, seeking to derive the most potent formulation of steel blood. Meanwhile she also begins recruiting Dragon-Poacher mercenaries for the harvesting of the required metallo-sanguine ingredients.
When novice librarian Nicki Blakougar becomes suspicious of Shadowseizer’s research activities, he begins to investigate. But this curiosity heats up into endangerment after Nicki trips some of the sorcerer-knight’s wards and his spying is discovered. Narrowly escaping alive, Nicki goes to Lucy, his kitten-hood friend and now City Chief, for help. Together with the aid of Thun-daar Constable Alex Blulynx, Nicki and Lucy set out to figure out Shadowseizer’s ultimate intent and stop her slaughter of rare dragons at any cost.
With Steel Blood Gribble has welded together this massively entertaining fantasy tale with secondary plots that delve into the gut-wrenching emotional turmoil of her character’s lives. Once dear friends, Nicki and Lucy became distant after the assisted suicide of Nicki’s twin sister Chrissie, who suffered from feline leukemia. Lucy, who had been in love with Chrissie, had found herself incapable of forgiving Nicki and his family for ‘giving up’ and allowing the illegal procedure to occur. As events force Lucy and Nicki to rediscover their friendship, their pain becomes compounded with the discovery that Constable Blulynx led the investigation into Chrissie’s assisted suicide, which led to the incarceration of Nicki’s parents.
And thereby melding mainstream literature characterization with epic fantasy, Steel Blood just tries to accomplish far too much. OK, these two aspects arguably do work well enough, but Gribble also smelts additional components into the novel that come off as nothing but impurities. An expert at metallurgy and sword construction, Gribble inserts pages upon pages of dry details on the chemistry of metal work and steelmaking amid the main plot. (As an aside: Gribble’s arrest decades ago — but never charging or conviction — for the mysterious death of New York Moments book reviewer Chazz Pepperdash had no impact on this overall positive review of her new novel. And really, investigations have since led to the conclusion that Pepperdash tragically slipped and accidentally, very brutally, cut his head off while shaving. So there was no foul intent at play, and even if there were, Gribble was most definitely not in any way involved, and Pepperdash’s scathing review of Gribble’s sophomore novel The Meow-sician of Middlesex was purely 100% coincidence. A very under-rated novel by the way.)
To a small degree this kind of attention is interesting, such as her details on the differences between types of dragons according to the alloys that make up their blood and the traits those dragons then have: manganese for hardness, molybdenum for durability, tungsten for resistance, etc. The mercury amalgams making up the steel blood of ice dragons is particularly awesome, but even that becomes ruined by paragraphs on bonding chemistry.
At the opposite side of the technical spectrum, Gribble works hard to add verisimilitude to her humanoid feline culture of the L’in-K’in realm by devoting as much to their feline aspect as their human. For every powerful passage detailing Thun-darr society or the emotions of individual relationships Gribble also writes another passage describing a character playing with their ball of yarn, chasing a laser, or strutting about with no other purpose than parading their importance and general disinterest in everyone around them. In a few cases she describes a noise that startles the particularly skittish Lucy, but writes the scene three times in a row with slightly differing details, followed by a summation of how “adorably cute Lucy’s reaction is, right?”
It is a shame that this novel wasn’t better edited, but not surprising as the previous volumes of the series had the same issue. However, I have since learned that the publishers of the book actually are a pack of dogs genetically engineered with the best the Rabies virus has to offer. So I guess book editing isn’t necessarily their strong suit. Despite these defects, the strengths of Steel Blood make it hold up resiliently with its action and heart, parts one can really sink their dragon fangs into. The novel also ends with an action-packed sequence involving a gigantic steel-blooded Lord Shadowseizer laying waste to Thun-darr! But I don’t want to spoil too much.
A Book by its Cover is a (renewed) monthly joke column featuring a review based on the cover and nothing else. Any similarities in our review to the book are purely coincidental and proof that we are awesome. You can purchase an actual copy of the very real book at Raw Dog Screaming Press. In addition, you can look for a review of the actual Steel Victory and Steel Magic novels here on Skiffy and Fanty next week.