Set in New York during the Gilded Age, Hearts of Smoke and Steam is Andrew P. Mayer’s second book in the Society of Steam series. It is extremely difficult to follow if you haven’t read The Falling Machine, which introduced these characters and their conflicts. This book continues the problem I had with the first book: an interesting premise is undercut by awkward storytelling.
I think this novel is about a transition of power from a stagnant, older generation to a young, vibrant and dynamic one. That’s what I think. Setting that story in 1880s New York City, a time and place of shocking contrasts and excesses, is a fascinating idea. It’s all the more disappointing, therefore, when characters are not plausible or well-developed, or the structure of the book swamps the story.
Sarah is the daughter of Alexander Stanton, a wealthy industrialist who is also part of a group of crime-fighters called the Paragons. They wear costumes powered by “fortified steam.” As the book begins, the Paragons have been devastated in a catastrophic battle that left the android character Tom, or the Automaton, destroyed and another of their dwindling number crippled.
Sarah, meanwhile, has run away from home and is making her own way in New York. Sarah won me over in the second chapter when she confronted the misogynistic superintendent of her building. She is spunky and smart, usually. Sarah has Tom’s heart, a piece of machinery of great interest both to the villains, the Children of Eschaton, and the Paragons themselves.
When the story followed Sarah or the enigmatic costumed character Anubis, I turned the pages eagerly, curious to know what came next, even if the story was fragmented and confusing. Mayer does a good job with the scenery of 1880s New York. Some of the descriptions are beautiful, and others, like the junkyard workshop of Italian immigrant Emilio, are whimsical, even funny. Anubis gets the benefit of one of the funniest scenes, when he battles someone in the middle of a gallery of erotic sculpture. Anubis is bewildered by the large mushroom-shaped pillar he sees when he first enters the room, and then embarrassed when he figures out what it represents.
Unfortunately, the book switches from Sarah’s story, and Anubis’s, to that of the surviving Paragons. Back at the Paragon headquarters, the survivors are holding job interviews for new members. The Paragons don’t realize that they have already been infiltrated by the Children of Eschaton, and soon they are under attack by Lord Eschaton himself. There are two problems with these sections. One is that they are boring, tending to be long stretches of internal monologue or speechifying. When Lord Eschaton lectures the captured Nathaniel, it is a torture for the hung-over young rake — and for us too.
The other problem is that not one of the surviving Paragons is likeable, admirable or engaging, so it’s hard for me to care what happens to them.
Characters, even fairly intelligent ones like Sarah, often do stupid things for the sake of the plot. In one scene, Sarah goes with Emilio to meet with an inventor, Vincent. In the past, Sarah has used the alias Susan to cover her tracks, but she never tells Emilio this beforehand. When Emilio introduces her as his fiancé Sarah, she corrects him, giving her name as Susan. From this, Vincent deduces immediately that her real name is Sarah. These antics make me lose respect for the characters, and they aren’t necessary to the plot.
Structurally, Mayer makes a baffling choice in several of his action sequences. When he has two characters in an action scene, he chooses not to shift between points of view intermittently. Instead, he follows one character through the scene from beginning to end, then goes back to the second character, from a point in time before the action started, and replays the entire scene, including word-for-word dialogue, from the second character’s point of view. This does three things. It vitiates any dramatic tension that may be built up; it slows down the pace of the action; and it throws the reader out of the internal timeline. Mayer does not do this only once, but several times. It is a bad stylistic choice.
At the beginning of the book, Sarah has the Heart and she is being chased by the Children of Eschaton. At the end of the book, Sarah has the Heart and she is being chased by the Children of Eschaton. Eschaton himself squandered perfectly good villain-time messing around at the Hall of Paragons, instead of coming after Sarah himself and getting the piece of machinery he thinks he needs to carry out his nefarious scheme. When we do find out something, like Eschaton’s identity, there is no emotional resonance to this revelation. The character whose identity-revelation will have significance is Anubis, and despite a big and awkwardly dropped hint by the housemaid in the first book, that topic is not touched here.
These are over-arching problems with the book’s structure. There are some smaller problems that jolted me out of the story, and one of them is the idea that Sarah, a sheltered, genteel girl, would choose the name “Adventuress,” which basically was the well-bred ladies’ way of saying “gold-digger,” as the name for her costumed alter-ego. This is not very believable. Little details like this, combined with the structural and character problems, made it hard for me to stay in the book.
Mayer has an original idea here and has picked, in Gilded Age New York, the perfect backdrop. He has talent. I hope, with the third book, he takes some time to hone his storytelling skills.
The Society of Steam — (2011-2013) Publisher: In 1880 women aren’t allowed to vote, much less dress up in a costume and fight crime… But twenty-year-old socialite Sarah Stanton still dreams of becoming a hero. Her opportunity arrives in tragedy when the leader of the Society of Paragons, New York’s greatest team of gentlemen adventurers, is murdered right before her eyes. To uncover the truth behind the assassination, Sarah joins forces with the amazing mechanical man known as The Automaton. Together they unmask a conspiracy at the heart of the Paragons that reveals the world of heroes and high-society is built on a crumbling foundation of greed and lies. When Sarah comes face to face with the megalomaniacal villain behind the murder, she must discover if she has the courage to sacrifice her life of privilege and save her clockwork friend. The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam, Book One) takes place in a Victorian New York powered by the discovery of Fortified Steam, a substance that allows ordinary men to wield extraordinary abilities and grants powers that can corrupt gentlemen of great moral strength. The secret behind this amazing substance is something that wicked brutes will gladly kill for and one that Sarah must try and protect, no matter what the cost.