Review: “The Burning Sky” (Halcyon #1) by Joseph Robert Lewis

So, a few days ago I discovered one of my new favourite authors ever. His name is Joseph Robert Lewis, and he’s the author of one of the best steampunk books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (and I’ve read plenty!)…

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The Burning Sky – Amazon.com

Blurb: Taziri Ohana is an elite airship pilot, though the long hours away from home have taken a toll on her family and she longs for a simpler life. When the Northern Air Corps is wiped out in a catastrophic fire, only Taziri survives to help the marshals pursue the suspects across the skies of Marrakesh. Their investigation reveals a vast conspiracy of deposed aristocrats, wealthy industrialists, and warmongers plotting against the crown. Taziri discovers that her own inventions have been perverted by the conspirators, the cities plunge into violent riots, and their only hope for salvation may be an exiled princess, her swashbuckling escort, and a crippled airship plummeting out of the burning sky.

 

Review: 5 stars!

Refreshing. Addictive. A breath of fresh air. Innovative. It’s not often that I fall completely, head-over-heels in love with a book, but when it happens – oh, when it happens it’s the best feeling in the world.

This book hits all the right notes for me. A steampunk book where the entire power structure of the world as we know it is subverted? A steampunk book that’s not focused on British or American white imperialism? A steampunk book where, in fact, the US and Britain – as well as the other main English-speaking countries- aren’t even among the main players? As a reader, writer, and in general citizen living outside the English-centric clique that seems to rule all cultural products, I very nearly wept with joy. I hadn’t realized how dearly I needed a book like this before I started reading this, and now it will be painful to go back to the same old stuff. I’m glad there’s another two trilogies set in this world I can look forward to!

[…]in this world, Europe never emerged from the last Ice Age and only the southern areas are habitable. North Africa is cool, wet, and fertile. Ancient nations such as the Persian Empire have persisted, though others, such as the Romans, never rose to power.

I loved how North Africa is the leading country in terms of technology and economy, here. I loved how the different areas had very different strong points – technology for Marrakesh, religion and supernatural for Espana, nature for the Incan Empire. I LOVED how an Incan woman described the Catholic religion from her perspective – it was delightful, for once, to see Europe portrayed as irrational and primitive through someone else’s eyes instead of always the reverse.

And oh, the women. It was just so wonderful to have all these diverse female characters, capable, smart, generous, brave but also scared, prideful, greedy… interacting, working together or fighting, for pages and pages. Such a huge leap from the all-too-common trope of the one perfect heroine surrounded by a cast of women accurately put down in order not to overshadow her magnificence. The best, unexpected part is how, most of the time, when some secondary character comes along, especially in a position of command… it turns out it’s a woman. And I realized that I was surprised by this, that I was so used to all these characters being naturally male that I was just assuming everybody in an important role would be a man. This was another huge breath of fresh air, and again, I hadn’t realized how much I needed this before I opened this book. It will be painful to go back to the usual tropes.

The characters in general are very three-dimensional, realistic, with good sides and flaws… which sounds normal, doesn’t it, except in most books – especially genre fiction books – characters tend to fall in the usual tropes and stereotypes. I hadn’t realized just how much those tropes were radicated in my head until I found myself getting frustrated because this book wasn’t following “the rules”… and of course I loved it even more for it. Main characters slowly become unlikable as their bad sides emerge. Bad guys crawl their way into your heart and eventually become the good guys almost without you realizing it. It’s frustrating at times, confusing, gives a lot to think about… it’s so delightfully REAL. And in a world where fiction demands 100% perfect, saintly protagonists and bad guys who are 100% evil for evil’s sake, this was such a relief. Harder. More painful. But so much more gratifying and involving in the long run.

During my research lately I’ve read too many books that were stereotypical ‘Chosen One’ YA romances with the steampunk elements used as nothing more than a backdrop for the plucky heroine and dashing hero, but this, this right here is what steampunk should be like. A radical re-imagining of society, a true exploration of what the world would be like if the balance of power shifted, with technology taking on a poignant role (the positivity of progress, yes, but also a critical look at the dangers and de-humanization that machines and factories bring) rather than being limited to quirky clockwork accessories for the rich bourgeoisie. This truly brings to the table the ‘punk’ element that should be the core of steampunk works but that, alas, is all too often lacking.

It hurts me that a book so wonderful is almost unknown in a world that desperately needs, and wants, more diversity in characters, settings, stories and dynamics. I was beginning to despair in my search for a steampunk book that wasn’t just a white bourgeoise gaslamp fantasy romance masquerading as such… and I can’t describe how glad I am to have stumbled across this little gem. It will definitely be one of the main case studies for my PhD dissertation, and I will do whatever I can to bring it more attention.

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