This Sunday I featured Steel Blood for my first offering in the ‘A Book By Its Cover’ series of humorous fake reviews. I haven’t yet read this third volume in J.L. Gribble’s Steel Empires series, but I have read the first two novels, Steel Victory and Steel Magic. Seems the perfect time to write real reviews on them.
In the most general sense, at least one part of that Steel Blood cover-inspired ‘review’ is correct. The Steel Empires series is a fusion of many different genre elements that make it hard to precisely classify. Urban Fantasy/Alternate History is the publisher’s cover labeling, and indeed the series overall recalls elements of The Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris (the basis of True Blood), built into an alternate history world. But added into this melting pot one can also find dashes of post-apocalyptic SF and Steampunk. All of these elements don’t mix equally, or as successfully, but on the whole the two novels have character-driven and plot-driven fun that is as solidly written as the most popular urban fantasy series out there.
Steel Victory is set in Limani, an independent city-state between British and Roman colonies on the New Continent that was founded after the Last War, a nuclear engagement that created Wastelands. Founded under principals of neutrality and democracy, Limani serves as home to a diverse population of vampires, various were-tribes, elves, and magic practitioners, all living alongside ‘normal’ humans in a delicately balanced shared governance. Though the world’s previous technology has been destroyed by the war and radiation, the magic of elves has partially restored some aspects of that previous culture, creating a world where bits of relatively modern technology are able to exist alongside swords and magic.
These details of setting are masterfully related to readers at the start of Steel Victory through an action-packed sequence that immediately starts the plot rolling in cinematic style. This opening is one of the best moments of the first novel, a scene that manages to be engaging while introducing backstory, plot, and characters.
Victory is a vampire, a former mercenary who now sits as a representative on the Limani City Council while continuing to train new Mercenary Guild members. The opening chapters of Steel Victory reveal that in addition to navigating treacherous political waters, Victory also bears personal responsibility for a unique extended family: the musician Mikelos who has the honor of being her ‘daywalker’ husband, her sire and mentor Asaron, and her adopted mage daughter Toria, who is bonded to chemistry student and warrior Kane.
Through Asaron and Toria, Victory learns that the New Roman emperor is trying to make a name for himself, and an army of his troops approaches Limani. Meanwhile, a Humanist group starts racist behavior and enacting policies against non-human citizens, inciting violence. Victory and her family are drawn into combatting plots that threaten Limani from both within and without.
Steel Victory was Gribble’s thesis novel for the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program and it shows in how tightly structured and paced it is compared to Steel Magic. In some regards this is a strength for Steel Victory, such as in its awesome opening. But it also becomes a limitation in that the novel progresses with predictable steps, as if checking off items from a list of what a novel needs to accomplish. This also leads to some of the details of the plot becoming predictable. By no means does this ruin the novel, but it does give it that ‘first novel’ feel. Steel Magic in contrast felt more fluid, as though Gribble were completely free to make it as she wished. As a result, though, it also wanders more. Neither method is perfect perhaps, but I preferred the greater unpredictability in plot and structure in Steel Magic.
Steel Magic also made other changes from Steel Victory that I really appreciated. It is almost as if Gribble read my mind of every critique I had for the first volume and enacted what I thought would be a better direction to go, or at least try, for the continued series. (I’ve since met her, and now I kind of wonder if she can read minds sometimes!) Firstly, Steel Magic takes the action away from Limani and begins to explore other realms of the universe Gribble has created. Harris did similarly with her first novels featuring Sookie Stackhouse, though not enough for my tastes. I quickly became tired by those novels and gave them up. At least for the second book, Gribble renewed my interest completely in her series, keeping enough from the first book while taking the reader to a very different place.
I don’t want to say much at all about the plot to Steel Magic, as one should of course read Steel Victory first. What I will say is that the second novel focuses specifically on Toria and Kane, taking them from Limani on their first assignment as new Journeymen. Exactly what I wished for. Victory, Asaron, and Mikelos were fine in the first novel, but Gribble’s passion even then seemed actually settled on Toria and Kane, and on their relationship. Not only this, but secondary characters in Steel Victory were among some of my favorite, most particularly Syrisinia – a young, leather jacket wearing elf – and her grandfather, the powerful Zerandan, who is featured toward the middle of Steel Victory in another scene that I adored for its striking visuals (and other senses):
“The light from the shimmering white shield exploded around her, and Toria closed her eyes against the double brilliance of the physical and magical sight of Zerandan’s power. Her shields protected her from every spark of magic in the world being visible to her sensitive mind, and she no longer had that shelter to hide behind.
She raised a peek, keeping her eyelids cracked to prevent the light of the shield from blinding her. To her shock, she could even see echoes of other colors from the bookshelves behind Zerandan’s shields, the magic items it contained shining through.
It all paled in comparison to the brilliant aura surrounding Zerandan. She thought that Kane’s aura of earthen magic was powerful. It was nothing compared to the ancient viridian power flowing across and under Zerandan’s skin.”[Steel Victory p. 104]
Back in Steel Magic (particularly Syrisinia), it appears to me that Gribble really has found her footing with this series, and the ending of that second novel made me come close to begging Gribble to send me an advanced look at the next. Instead I chose patience and am presently ordering my copy.
I, and others, have been impressed with the overall quality of books that Raw Dog Screaming Press puts out, garnering them Stoker Awards and notice by Hollywood. (Screenwriters, do take notice of Steel Empires, what a fantastic series it would make.) One criticism I do have of their selections is that many are series that would probably work better combined into something longer. I do understand though why this wouldn’t be feasible for them in terms of publishing. But still, some of their series haven’t progressed further beyond the first book. What I particularly like about Steel Empires is that the books do work separately, and Gribble has the productivity to keep writing them (and so far doing it well.) With the third book just released now, I believe she already has the fourth and fifth in production.
Beyond their interesting characters and action, both Steel Victory and Steel Magic also deal with deeper themes that I find interesting. Issues of xenophobia and how to resist or fight against it while maintaining democracy are chief among these. But also the novels deal with multiple aspects of diversity, most uniquely within the realm of love, from friendship and the familial to the physical. Toria and Kane share a particularly special bond, one that kindles the romantic:
“But the plots of entire romance novels revolved around two mages connecting with each on some deeper level while linking for some inane ritual.
Toria always found those plots contrived and unrealistic, written by housewives who had never met a mage in their lives. And now Kane and Archer were holding hands, and Kane’s grasp on her own hand had loosened. Sparks were flying, and if she stuck around any longer, that might stop being metaphorical.
It appeared those tropes were not as unrealistic as she once thought.”[Steel Magic p. 112]
Yet, Gribble doesn’t portray their relationship or feelings as just this simple or traditional. Theirs is unique, meaningful, and strong, but it is not the only relationship of love they have. It may extend even beyond the binary, and both Toria and Kane have additional meaningful relationships outside of their bond.
Steel Magic introduces new characters to enhance the relationship between Toria and Kane, but also of course to introduce some complications. It is just the right combination to keep readers comfortable with enough familiarity in a continued series while also starting new journeys. I stayed away from any descriptions of Steel Blood before writing up the A Book By Its Cover feature, but from the end of Steel Magic I expect it to be fulfilling and similarly open up new character doors. If you enjoy entertaining Urban Fantasy and genre mixes, then give this series a try.