Steampunk as a fiction genre has nearly disappeared. It’s become much more of a fashion or costume statement; or subsumed completely into alternate history. I understand the reasons; and expect the various sub-genres to ebb and flow like everything else. It was still a nice treat to read 2023’s Spark of Destiny by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin, a genuine steampunk adventure.
Here’s an incomplete list of what I expect in steampunk:
- alternate European or North American history (or other locations—this is just what I mostly see);
- updated technology, usually powered by a fictional, or “newly discovered” energy source;
- gender and ethnic diversity supported by the plot and/or worldbuilding. (This doesn’t mean that the mainstream culture has evolved.);
- At least a few changes in major historical events, and
- cool gadgets.
Probably “cool gadgets” should come first.
Spark of Destiny, the second JAKE DESMET ADVENTURE, has all of the above. Set in an alternate USA, on the verge of the Spanish-American war, it follows Jake Desmet and Rick Brand as they seek out a (paranormal) sunken treasure off the coast of Cuba, racing against the Spanish and USA governments and a shadowy evil confederacy called Sombra. Brand and Desmet is a company started by our protagonists’ fathers, and provides safe storage and transport of powerful arcane objects. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of arcane objects in this world.
They’re helped by Nicki LeClercq, a smart, adventurous woman whose verve for life wasn’t satisfied by her exclusive European finishing school, and Adam Farber, an imaginative inventor whose day job is with Tesla Westinghouse. Liliana and Elian, Spanish citizens who lived in Cuba and deplore the war, assist; Elian with his formidable witchcraft and Liliana, with impressive psychic mediumistic powers. She easily communicates with ghosts.
The story starts off with a bang as Nicki, Jake and Rick leave for Key West. Their train is attacked. When they reach the compound in Florida, they find out their storage area has been sabotaged, and when Nicki goes to ask Elian and Liliana for help, her carriage is attacked by revenants. In spite of all the action, for some reason, I didn’t really feel the stakes were very high until the book divided the labor, originally leaving the women at the compound to assess how much magical damage has been done—and decrypt a mysterious batch of documents, photographs and paintings that have come their way. The guys go off to Key West, where we get to see more magic, more gadgets, and Adam’s one-person submersible vessel.
The Key West section is filled with gadgets and gunfire, but the psychic expedition Liliana and Nicki take held my interest more. Gail Z. Martin has a series of other books with haunted objects. Either she simply does this extraordinarily well, or this is the kind of puzzle I prefer. For whatever reason, when the two women encounter a curse, try to determine the location of a hidden city in the swamp, or commune with ghosts, I was fully on-board.
In the final third, the two storylines converge, as expected. We find the hidden city and uncover what is being built there. We also catch a glimpse of the dreaded “swamp ape.”
(Note: the internet gave me nothing about a “swamp ape,” but Florida does advertise a “skunk ape” which resembles Bigfoot. This may or may not be the inspiration for the creature we glimpse in final section of Spark of Destiny.)
The final few sequences in the lost city were nail-biters and I enjoyed how the pieces fit together to get us there. One big disappointment in the book was the adversarial sorcerer, an “island sorcerer.” He was simply not powerful or tricky enough to be a good foil for our heroes. I kept hoping for a twist. Since this is a series, I suspect we will see more of that character’s family, and might actually get the sorcerous shoot-out I was expecting here.
Frankly, I was delighted with a piece of backdrop scenery; the rival inventor partnerships of Tesla Westinghouse versus Edison Bell. I’d love to see some more direct skullduggery from these inventors.
Spark of Destiny is great fun, and pretty easy to follow even if you haven’t read the first book, Iron & Blood. Good for a trip, or a winter’s night in front of a fire.