It’s hard for me to grasp just what Andrew P. Mayer is trying to do in his 1880’s Society of Steam debut, The Falling Machine. Mayer sets his book in New York City during the Gilded Age. The book, first of a trilogy, appears to be a fable or a parable about the transition of power, or the dangers of privilege, or something. I can’t quite tell what. I can’t tell who I am supposed to cheer for, or, really, why I should care about the travails of the Paragons, a group of aging, costumed crime-fighters.
The Falling Machine opens with a group of wealthy people visiting one of the towers of the under-construction Brooklyn Bridge. Among them are Sarah Stanton, daughter of Alexander Stanton, a wealthy industrialist; Nathaniel, whose relationship to the Stantons is unclear; Sir Dennis Darby; and Tom, an automaton created by Darby. Their discussion soon lets us know that Nathaniel, Darby and Tom are all part of a unique crime-fighting force, the Paragons. Usually they wear elaborate costumes with strange weapons fuelled by Darby’s singular discovery, fortified steam. The trip, which celebrates humanity’s technological advances, soon turns horrifying as Darby is killed and Nathaniel wounded. The killers are part of a group who call themselves the Children of Eschaton.
Darby was the Paragons’ creative genius and with him gone, the group is in disarray, but it seems that something even more serious is happening. Tom, the android, and Wickham, the Sleuth, confide in Sarah that there is a traitor among the Paragons. Meanwhile, through the Sleuth’s eyes, we see some of the Children of Eschaton and begin to fill in the edges of Lord Eschaton’s scary plot. There is the Alpha Element, Darby’s discovery, which creates fortified steam. There is also an Omega Element, which apparently creates a deadly fortified smoke. The Children of Eschaton have access to fortified smoke. Since “eschaton” refers to the last days of the earth, I could assume that this group’s plan is evil. The Children of Eschaton we meet are immigrants, Asian, Irish or Jewish, so maybe “eschaton” only refers to a reversal of the social order, in which case I should be cheerleading for the Children. I don’t know.
It’s clear that the Paragons are already corrupt. Alexander Stanton, whose crime-fighter moniker is “The Industrialist,” has falsified Darby’s last will and testament. The German Paragon, Submersible, is apparently guilty of unnamed crimes against women. Nathaniel, aka The Turbine, is an inept, self-pitying drunkard, apparently only on the team because of his connection to Stanton. At no time in this book do the Paragons fight for justice or stop a crime. They are an exclusive men’s club. If the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies got tired of building mansions and fifteen-bedroom fishing cottages in the Adirondacks and took up crime-fighting, they would be the Paragons. Sarah comments on this to her father, when she reminds him that he told her that Prometheus was the first paragon, but the Paragons now identify more with Zeus.
It wasn’t clear to me that the Paragonswere ever good, though. In part, this is because there is very little backstory. About two-thirds of the way through, I flipped the book over to look at the cover, sure that I had picked up Book Two by mistake, but no, it’s the first book. When were the Paragons founded? Why? Is Nathaniel Sarah’s stepbrother? Is the Industrialist currently married? If so, where is his wife? How old was Sarah when her mother was killed? What is her mother’s name? Does Stanton have a son? Is he missing? What brought Wickham and Darby from England to the US? What was Darby trying to invent when he uncovered the Alpha Element, which is apparently radioactive? None of this is in the book.
Characterization is also weak here. Tom is basically the Star Trek character Data in a derby and tails. Stanton is stubborn, angry and manipulative without any positive qualities showing. Anubis, a mysterious costumed man, and Sarah are the best-realized of the bunch. Characters do things that are very stupid or downright incomprehensible because the plot needs them to. Stanton changes Darby’s will before he shares it with the other Paragons. Then he leaves himself a note in his secret room, giving the page and clause that he deleted. Why? So Sarah can find it and tell the Sleuth, of course, not because there is any reason to leave yourself a note about a document you’ve already altered. There are a lot of action sequences and fight scenes, including an intriguing one between the Sleuth and the most interesting character in the book, the shades-of-gray Anubis, but plot elements do not propel the story forward. People discover important things so that the reader can see them, and then are killed before they can act on this information or pass it on. It is baffling.
There are some lovely descriptions of New York in what was, for some at least, a golden age. Mayer draws a powerful contrast between the marble halls of new money and the warrens of poverty, and the Brooklyn Bridge is a perfect symbol for the time period. Late in the book, an angry, impoverished woman asks rhetorically why there are no costumed crime-fighters protecting people like her. That’s a very good question. I think, on some level, that question is supposed to be what the book is about.
If I were trying for a steampunk analogy for this book, I would say that it has a shiny surface but almost no support structure. There is an interesting premise here and lots of potential that has not been fulfilled. Perhaps fulfillment will come in Hearts of Smoke and Steam, the second book in the series.
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.