Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 6, 2009

Jonathan Green – Unnatural History

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:31 pm

With this, Abaddon[1] Press’s first in the Pax Britannia[2] series, another patchwork cadaver gets unceremoniously slung on the creaking, lurching bandwagon of steampunk.

I had this pressed upon me as a free gift at Eastercon LX, and I have no hesitation in saying it was worth more than I paid for it. I got at least 25p worth of entertainment from writing this review, after all.

There’s a half-decent novella in there, maybe a hundred pages of sparkling wit and madcap action; but it’s encumbered by four things.

The first is the author’s tin ear for dialogue, and inability to separate narrative voice from character; the second is the unoriginality of each tired set-piece scene, from the confrontation with Scotland Yard at the Scene of the Crime to the life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train and the hero’s unorthodox entry to a zeppelin in flight[3]; the third is the glutinous web of what we’ll charitably refer to as plot that binds those scenes together; and the fourth is the excess two hundred pages of leadenly prolix padding that surrounds it all.

It’s written very much in the style of a Strand part-work, and each chapter takes care to recap large parts of the one before. To add to this weight of unnecessary verbiage, there’s also rather a lot of infodump exposition; it appears that Green had simultaneously been writing the roleplaying game sourcebook of the world, and by some budgetary exigence had been forced to combine the two projects into one.

The characters appear to have been ordered from a catalogue, possibly quite cheaply. I suspect that that would be because the millionaire playboy secret agent explorer[4], the ex-prizefighter butler, the ruthless femme fatale villain, the incompetent police inspector, the amoral scientist, and the machiavellian politician would quite happily all roll up and fit in one cardboard tube.

About all I can say about the book’s ending is that it has one, and that the plot strand (there is only one) is resolved, and that in the proper style some of the enemies have escaped for the sequel. If we are lucky, there will not be a sequel.

As far as further detail goes, either I have blotted it from my mind in the last ten minutes or I found myself incapable of reading it with any attention due to the sheer horror of both the prose and the internal logic of the proceedings.

It reads as though the Good Doktor Frankenstein, despite his medical degree, had been unable to tell fresh corpse parts from the sundered limbs of Action Man, and instead of pulling the lever to surge life-giving electricity into his creation had instead attached strings and made it dance the Funky Chicken.

[1] What a name. I suppose at least it has the merit of keeping their books to their intended audiences.
[2] Oh, look, unnecessary Latin. Now there’s a surprise. The text refers to “Magna Britannia” and “Londinium Maximum”, and at one point Our Protagonist gets into a fist fight with something “the academics would give the name homo lizardus or perhaps lizardus sapiens“. And that’s narrative text, not reported speech…
[3] It’s both pseudo-Victorian steampunk and alternate history. Of course it has to have zeppelins. It would have been really quite surprising if it didn’t.
[4] One Ulysses Quicksilver, and the protagonist of this novel. The only distinguishing features that have stuck in my mind are that he learnt generic Eastern martial arts in a generic Eastern monastery, and that he wears a chartreuse and crimson waistcoat. I would really rather not have known these things.

1 Comment »

  1. [...] of course, not “published in 2009″) goes to The Dazzle of Day, by Molly Gloss, while Unnatural History, by Jonathan Green strolls off, nearly unchallenged, with the wooden spoon. Both of those will be a tough contender [...]

    Pingback by Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood » Blog Archive » At the end of the year — January 2, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

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