Friday, July 10, 2020

Microreview [book]: The Sin In the Steel by Ryan Van Loan

The Sin in the Steel marries a genderflipped Sherlockian story with an epic fantasy context to create a strong and entertaining adventure.

Buc and Eld make an unusual pair. Buc is a young genius in the Sherlockian mode, able to analyze and deduct and run her brain at a mile a minute. Eld is a veteran with sword and fighting skills for the both of them. When they are boxed into a corner, though, the only way for the pair of freelance investigators is to take on a mission to find out why the sugar shipments from the tropics are no longer coming through. Buc and Eld discover a plot involving Pirate Queens, Undead sailors, scheming Gods and more in Ryan Van Loan’s The Sin in the Steel.

Going into the novel, I did not quite realize that this was going to be a twist on a Sherlock adventure, and it was a delight to meet Buc and Eld on Holmes and Watsonian  terms. The author takes this further than I expected--giving Buc a use of a drug in order to focus and think in a productive way, and making Eld a veteran Who Has Seen Things.. The youthful nature of the protagonists (Buc is 17 and Eld a couple of years later) puts them between a “Young Sherlock Holmes” and a Traditionally aged Holmes and Watson. This makes the pair placed in an interesting spot as characters--they are competent, sometimes frighteningly so, but they have NOT known each other for so long as to know every detail of their lives. In point of fact, revelations of the backstories of Eld and Buc, to each other and to the reader make up a lot of the work of the character drama that helps drive the narrative. And given their age, they are youthful enough to sometimes make painful but understandable mistakes. This provides us with well rounded characters.

One interesting technique Van Loan uses is to provide us with Buc’s point of view from the first person, and Eld’s from a third person point of view. I would have expected the reverse, as the Watsonian point of view of standing outside Holmes and having Holmes’s brilliance elicited from the outside. But here, since Buc’s character and character growth are so essential to the novel, having Buc as our first person character is the choice that the author makes here, and it is an unexpected, but effective choice. Given that she really is the focus for growth and change (as opposed to Eld, whose arc is more revelatory rather than evolving) , this gives us a strong character arc to ground the novel in. If you ever wanted to read a youthful genderflipped Sherlock Holmes character in a fantasy verse, The Sin in the Steel is definitely for you.

The plotting and worldbuilding equally shine here. Buc and Eld getting rooked into searching out the source of a sugar trade disruption works on a number of levels, as Buc tries to use her intelligence to make a clever deal, and at the same time, we get a whole sheaf of information on how commerce, mercantilism, government and more work. The feeling of the novel is in line with the Flintlock fantasy era in the vein of Django Wexler or Brian McClellan but with a less military and a much more economics and political focus. That politics extends into the magic and the religious aspects of the novel, as the story spins out a religious conflict that uses the magic and theology of the world to make it less of a Wars of Reformation and more of a shadow conflict that Buc and Eld find themselves caught up in. There is a lot of lumber laid down in setting this all up, and even by the end of the novel, there is plenty for future novels to explore, here.

The plotting itself puts Buc and Eld into the midst of a variety of interesting secondary characters. Pirate Queen. Check. Undead Sea Captain that would put Barbossa in the shade. Check. Ambitious and avid Archaeologist who might have the keys to solving the entire mystery of what’s going on. Check. All of the characters have goals, ambitions, plots and sometimes rather prickly and fraught relations and conflicts between the various characters. There is a good diversity of characters in terms of gender and sexuality, helping to provide a rich tapestry of different people to help propel the narrative. I particularly liked Chan Sha, the Pirate Queen, who is far more complicated in action and motivation than she appears and Buc and Eld suspects. Her relationship with the Ghost Captain illuminates the feeling that the characters Buc and Eld encounter have relationships, conflicts and plans of their own that they intersect, interfere and modify.

And for a character and plot focused novel, the action beats when they occur, are good. The flintlock fantasy setting means there is plenty of guns and magic and swords at play and Buc, for all of her Sherlockian self, can be a dangerous opponent as the veteran Buc is. I found her use of a slingshot a rather unusual weapon of choice, but she makes full and effective use of it throughout the novel. The action beats, be it a standoff with undead, or a ship to ship battle are well described, excellent paced and explicated and provide lightning bolts of excitement in the narrative to galvanize the reader. There are plenty of buckles to be swashed here.

One additional thing I did like about the novel is the literate nature of Buc and how that literacy not only works to her personality and character growth, but also to plot and also to worldbulding as well. This is a world where literacy is still a niche activity and libraries are by and large small. Buc is an avid reader, but this is a world where that means that she has read a prodigious number of books for her age, her time and place -- but that still means it’s only several hundred books. Buc is a literate personality as well, sharpening her mind on books in the same way that a Tyrion Lannister might, and what she has learned and the lure of other books definitely. The end of the book has notes on some of the imaginary books that Buc has read, and not only what they are, but what Buc thought of them. I do hope further books with Buc continue this practice.

While there might be some first novel pacing and plotting issues in the novel, they are not overly serious and did not overly hurt the enjoyment of the novel. On the contrary, I am really interested in what the author can and will do with Buc, Eld and this world. The Sin in the Steel was entertaining, flowed well, and kept wanting me to pick it up again and again to continue the narrative and story. More, please!

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a wonderful pair of main characters, as well as a diverse set of secondary characters with goals, dimensionality and power.
+1 for inventive and interesting worldbuilding with a variety of techniques and methods to showcase and build the author’s world.

Penalties: -1 A little bit of first novel roughness in plotting and writing.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention

Reference: Van Loan, Ryan. The Sin in the Steel [Tor,  2020]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.