The world O’Keefe has created has the feeling of being on the margins of something larger. It’s centred on a town nestled on the side of a volcanic mountain. The town is sat on the side of an active volcano because it contains ‘selium’, a lighter than air gas, which can be used for travel – but can also be manipulated by the small percentage of the population which are ‘sel-sensitive’. Sensitives can do all manner of things with selium, but are strongly discouraged from doing so – instead, being the only ones able to process the gas on which air transport depends, they spend their lives working at the selium mines, or, rarely, as airship captains. There’s a suggestion that those with a greater affinity for selium, or with the ability to do odd things to it, are quietly disappeared.
It’s a world with it’s own customs and expectations, which O’Keefe quietly slides into the narrative. The sense of a company town is carefully and cleverly evoked , and by the close of the narrative, it feels like a living, breathing metropolitan area. Admittedly, not one you’d want to live in – filled with rock dust, knife-edge politics and the occasional murder- but still a place with a soul, and a unique sense of place.
This rugged, dangerous, semi-magical space is occupied by several interesting characters. There’s the Watch Captain, a stolid individual with a strong sense of duty, and a surprising willingness to get into scraps with people who get in her way. There’s the sneak thief/con artist from one of the nobility, and his loyal companion. There’s the commodore from over the sea, filled with a clinical ruthlessness and a yen for power.
Some characterisations are more successful than others ; the central pillar of the narrative is the noble con artist, whose smooth talking efforts to avoid jail time end up leading into something far worse, and at times I struggled empathise with him. There were some moments of cleverness which were both amusing and excellent indicators of character – at one point he filches a set of clothes from a public bath, and ends up with the owners wallet, as well as his rage, but there were smaller instances where it didn’t work as well, where the dialogue felt ever so slightly awkward, or where there was a bit too much exposition. Still, he was rather fun to read, and there were enough character-consistent revelations to keep things interesting. The Watch Captain, by contrast, is a perfectly serviceable character, filled with traits – but I would have liked to have seen her develop further; perhaps this will come in later books.
The antagonists are delightfully unpleasant, pragmatically vicious people. There’s not a sense of the diabolical here, but more the systematically oppressive, or the uncaring brutality of the strong to the weak. It’s an impersonal poison, which is very well portrayed, and makes for an agonising and enjoyable read. Again, it would have been great to see a little more of these characters, and shared something of their more human moments – but they work perfectly well in the text as-is.
The plot…well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers. It starts with something of a slow burn, as the reader gets acclimatised to the characters and their environment. But there’s something relentless about the pacing of the text, and it picks up ever-increasing speed from about the middle onward – and by the end, it’s an absolute juggernaut of prose, which I couldn’t stop reading. There’s something for everyone – witty banter, realpolitik, elusive and wonderful magic, the occasional stabbing. If the characters aren’t trying to save the world (or at least their piece of it), they’re definitely busy trying to save themselves. There’s red herrings, investigations, the occasional wonderfully funny moment, and some heartstopping action sequences – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s got heart.
Is it worth reading? If you’re willing to look past the occasional flaw, and have the patience for the slow start, this is a fascinating, thoroughly rewarding read. It’s definitely worth the time – I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the enxt book may bring.