I don't know why you've stopped reviewing, H.C. I hope it's nothing more sinister than personal preference, but should you chance to read this, know that you touched a life, and more than once have kept a writer writing. You have my eternal gratitude and best wishes for a long and happy life.
So with no further waffling, I present Good, Bad, Bizarre's take on Beyond the Rails. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Today we have a review for a genre that we have been avoiding until now: Steampunk. Why have we avoided it? Well, a couple of bad experiences with the genre, via books that we will not name, had previously soured us to Steampunk in all its forms. One book was so awful -- a mishmash of Sci-Fi, Victorian history, and (surprise!) magic -- that we could not even finish it. We were hurled from one setting to another, had technology and then magic shoved in our faces, and when the talking lobsters appeared… well, we just threw in the towel (and, if you read any of our other reviews, you will know that this is quite unusual -- usually we love the strange and bizarre, but in this case it did not love us back). If this is Steampunk, we thought, then clearly it’s overrated. We have not picked up another Steampunk book… until this day.
That’s why we’re glad that we had the chance to review this book. Because, before now, we quite literally did not know what we were missing. It just goes to show that when you give something a second chance, it can surprise you. So let’s take a look into things, shall we?
Title: Beyond the Rails
Author: Jack Tyler
Genres: Steampunk, Action & Adventure, Western-ish
The book is comprised of several adventures -- more like short stories -- which center on the plucky crew of an “airship” -- that is, a dirigible. It takes place in the 1880s (according to the preface) in a region of Kenya, Africa, which is being colonized by the British. The railroads in the area only reach a certain distance into the African frontier; after that, everything is “beyond the rails,” and only accessible by air. That’s where our crew and their airship come in, for they have the one thing that everyone needs: mobility. This means that they need to be ready for anything -- and everything -- that they can encounter, both inside civilization and out.
The book starts out with a sequence of interrelated short stories, which read very much like classic “penny dreadful” or adventure tales, complete with dastardly villains who receive their comeuppance by Our Heroes by the end. Each story also serves the purpose of letting us get to know a member of the crew a little better, as we get to see them act alone and interact together. By the end, the book changes gears and moves into a connected narrative, with each chapter starting to add to a larger plot. Unfortunately that plot ends in mid-swing -- but the fortunate thing about this is that this also means that there is more to come in future installments.
Throughout the book, we were struck by the author’s writing. It does a wonderful job of relating the stories in what we would describe as a “verisimilitude” way -- that is, it does feel as though these people are from the late nineteenth century, with their mannerisms, niceties, and ways of looking at the world. It also flows wonderfully, providing ample description, and has mastered the ability to both trust the reader’s judgment -- there’s a lot of subtlety in these pages -- while still providing ample amounts of description and oddities for our brains to gnaw on.
1) Vibes: Rudyard Kipling, Indiana Jones, and Cowboys & Indians
Not having had much experience with Steampunk, we can’t rightfully say if most of the genre features these sorts of things or not; but right away, the moment the story begins, we found ourselves having a “Western Adventure” kind of vibe. Instead of the American southwest, it was the African frontier. Instead of Cowboys and Indians, it was the Airship Crew and the Africans. Each chapter was a complete story of its own, so we kept experiencing new adventures with every turn of the page. There was a rough-and-tumble, get-yer-guns-ready, we’re-riding-(flying)-into-town sort of feeling in these tales, and we enjoyed the blend of safari story and Wild West.
Whether or not this is common to Steampunk, we can say one thing about the presence of Western-style genre within this book: it was awesome. Setting the tale in Africa added so many layers and so much room for adventure; it was quite the brilliant move. Add to this the fact that most of the characters were not American (there is one person from the USA), then it also becomes a British Cowboy story. Throw in some colonialist themes and there’s Rudyard Kipling waiting in the background, too. Add a dash (a small dash) of magic, and bigger countries’ struggles (English and Prussian strain), and suddenly Indiana Jones is dancing around. In short, anyone who loves the old-fashioned adventure tale will love this book.
2) Great cast
The cast of characters was very flavorful and unique. Each character both embodied a stereotype and possessed his own unique flair, which really allowed us to picture them in our mind. The Captain of the airship, Clinton Monroe, is a no-nonsense man of action, and takes good care of his crew like a father-figure. David Smith, the American cowboy, has found a home-away-from-home in Africa’s savanna. Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth is a prissy, highly educated, somewhat out of his element newcomer to the crew, and despite his rough patches still has a good heart. And there are others, too (Of course, our favorite has to be Patience Hobbs, who we will discuss below.)
The thing about each of these characters is that we’re given time to spend with each of them. They are each given a portion of the story to themselves, and we get to follow them around, get a feel for them as individuals, and see a little about what makes them tick. This is a wonderful way to become invested in their fates throughout the story. We really liked how different they all were, and yet how they all functioned together as a single unit: the intrepid crew of the airship Kestrel.
3) Portrayal of women
Right from the start, this story makes no bones about it: Patience Hobbs is a frontier woman, and such women don’t scare easily. She comes from fine breeding and had a high education in England, but truth be told she’s now working with the boys and can keep up with them easily. Patience forms one of the core characters in the narrative. She is the airship pilot, and this is only one of her formidable list of skills. She steers the ship through crises. She kicks the butt of an assassin. In short, she rocks. She’s not the only woman here, either. There are others of equal importance, skill, and complexity.
The thing we enjoyed the most, however, was that these women were both strong… and feminine. This is not a story of a woman who had to give up being female in order to be taken seriously. Patience is allowed to show a softer, more feminine side: she sticks up for those who need a helping hand (like Ellsworth), and she in general acts more like a tough woman than a man’s man, and nobody holds this against her or thinks that she’s below them because of it. Another character, Cynthia Blackwell, also travels from being weak and dependent into a fuller, able-bodied individual, and she also does not lose touch with femininity.
Oh, and did we mention this book passes the Bechdel Test? By our estimation, Patience Hobbs and another female character, Cynthia Blackwell, have an entire conversation about airship flight, what it means to travel, and how this is affecting them, personally. And they only mention “boys” in an abstract sense, just once, and it relates more toward describing their own feelings, personalities, and character arcs. How awesome is that?
4) Saves the magic… until later
One thing we first thought about this story was that it took its time. Aside from the presence of the dirigible, at first it read nothing like a Steampunk story at all. It was taking place in the late 1800s, to be sure, but plenty of stories take place at that time without being Steampunk. We kept reading page after page, feeling quite at home, getting to know the characters, cheering the Heroes and booing the Villains. It was all good fun, through-and-through… with one exception, which was caused entirely by us and our own attitude.
You see, we were subconsciously dreading and waiting for when the talking lobsters would appear. Given our previous exposure to this genre, we were worried that things would take a sudden left turn and leave us stranded, wondering, confused by the sudden influx of unfamiliar tropes and obscure clichés that would make our head spin. After all, this was Steampunk, and in our case we were “once bitten and twice shy.” Surely there would be talking lobsters, yes?
But that terrible moment never came to pass. Instead, the book handled the eventual introduction of magic and super-science with a great deal of finesse and subtlety. By the time the first hints of magic appeared on the page, we were so engrossed with the characters that we were not confused by it -- in fact, if anything, we were thrilled. It made sense, given the context of everything that had happened previously, and it added new flavor to the story. The characters who encountered it had normal human reactions -- “Holy carpets! Real magic!” -- and didn’t just shrug it off like no big deal. Once it arrived, it also didn’t take over the story, instead remaining exactly where it should be: in the periphery, so that we could continue to focus on the characters. Just like how Indiana Jones can have the Ark of the Covenant raining Holy Fire onto the Nazi heathens, so also could witch doctors in the savanna have magic at their beck and call. Makes sense, no?
It is about one half of the way through the book before magic is brought into the picture. And super-science -- or at least its 1800’s equivalent -- only appeared about three-fourths of the way into the book. We suppose that the sequel would have these things in much larger proportions, but truth is we wouldn’t mind that very much. We were permitted to learn the characters and the normal world’s customs before we went running off into the great wild unknown of sorcery and science, which is good enough for us.
5) World building
Given everything that we just said above, we would also like to take a brief moment to mention the verisimilitude and “feel” of the book. We don’t know how accurate these stories are to real life with dirigibles on the African frontier in the late-nineteenth century. In fact, although we’re fairly sure that there were no blimps in Africa at the time (were there?), we can’t say for certain that there weren’t. We only know what feels real and what doesn’t, and this book definitely falls into the former category.
We truly felt as though we were adventuring on a blimp in sub-Saharan Africa. We felt the heat. We met the people. We thrilled at the danger. We listened to the people speaking in other languages. We concerned ourselves over the impact of a far-off European war on this growing colony and the people there. And, if we ever read a history textbook on the time period and learn that there were no dirigibles in Kenya, we will be sorely disappointed.
1) Incomplete ending
Despite all the awesomeness in this book, it does end on an unfinished note. Again, some people will like this, and we (kind of) can’t begrudge it, because it means that there will definitely be more stories in the future. All the same, we like when a book ends with a completed plot, not halfway through the major arc of the next book. It sounds good and it ends on an intriguing note, but a cliffhanger is still a cliffhanger. Arg! We’re not rock climbers, so we’ve got to mention this. :(
2) Character blitz
Now, in this case it was a lesser form of character blitz. The story does a good job of delegating each character’s role when they are first introduced -- one is the captain, one is the pilot, another is the customer, one is the engineer, etc -- and it also does a good job of focusing on only a couple important characters in each chapter of the book (remember, as we said above, each chapter helps flesh out one of the airship’s crewmen). Still, when they were first introduced, we had a little trouble telling them apart. Only a few more pages into the story, this was solved (mostly by ignoring the characters who hadn’t been fully introduced yet). But we still had that initial moment of confusion. It’s a credit that the confusion only lasted so long, though.
1) Dirigibles… er, we mean blimps… uh, actually make that “airships”
The story concerns a lot of dirigibles, as one can guess (hey, the title is “Beyond the Rails,” and only dirigibles -- or “airships” -- can really travel that far). The characters actually go into detail explaining how these massive contraptions work, which is awesome. A large part of the plot concerns them and how they fly, the mechanics of how travel like this affects the characters, and so forth. This must have been the result of a lot of research and it was fascinating for us, given that blimps aren’t really things that we know (or think) that much about. We’re definitely noticing the Goodyear blimp next time it hovers around our house.
...AND THE VERDICT:
This book is GOOD.
We have to say, this book single-handedly convinced us to reconsider our dislike of Steampunk. This is a feat all by itself. And with that, we can’t say that it’s anything but Good, even though it has plenty of Bizarreness everywhere -- which, of course, just adds flavor to the whole shebang.
This book would satisfy a whole range of people, so we’re just going to list the two most important below:
First, those who are fans of Steampunk -- which is a no-brainer -- but also those who would like to give Steampunk a try. As we said before, we personally are unfamiliar with this genre and had, in fact, originally sworn off it because of a bad experience. Now we think that perhaps the problem was that we had been introduced too quickly to something that was too deep inside the genre’s tropes -- kind of like throwing The Watchmen at someone who has never read graphic novels before -- and as a result were just left dazed and confused. By contrast, this book does an excellent job of introducing the reader more slowly into the world of the Steampunk genre, making for a much smoother reading experience for those who have doubts. So, Steampunk virgins, this one’s for you!
And second, those who are fans of the good ol’ adventure story. It’s very much like a Robert Louis Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling tale. If you enjoy intrepid explorers braving the unknown, then that is exactly what we have here. It’s a swashbuckling, “let’s go see what’s out there” sort of tale, and boy, it brought back memories of reading the good old stuff.
Of course, we would also recommend this to fans of Westerns -- we’re seriously not kidding about that whole “frontier” vibe -- and to those who like reading about strong heroines who are not unfeminized (that’s us!), and even to children ages 12 and up (If they’ve read Treasure Island or The Jungle Book, this should be on their list.). Basically, anybody who just wants to enjoy a rousing old-fashioned adventurer’s tale, look no further because it’s here.
And, best news of all, according to the author’s blog, he’s also already hard at work on the sequel, and has the eighth “short story / next chapter” posted online as a free sample. We hope this means that it will be done soon, so we can continue the adventure. In a single book we’ve gone from hating Steampunk to giving it a second chance, so we have big expectations for the upcoming sequel.
Not hard to see why this review is one of my prized possessions as a writer! If you haven't encountered Beyond the Rails, and would like to see what turned this reviewer's head, the first story, The Botanist, detailing Nicholas Ellsworth's arrival in Kenya and his introduction to the crew, is available in its entirety as a free sample. Just click the tab at the top of the left sidebar.
To visit my other blog where I give a weekly monologue about my take on punk fiction and writing in general, click on https://www.writing.com/main/profile/blog/blimprider -- I'll do my very best to keep it interesting, informative, and entertaining, so drop in and sample my wares... I double-dog dare you!