Iron & Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin is the first book in a new series featuring Jake Desmet and Rick Brand as treasure hunters. A Steampunk novel with a paranormal twist, it’s set in Pittsburgh in 1898. Accompanying Jake and Rick on their adventures is Jake’s cousin Veronique LeClerque. Jake, Rick, and Veronique are on their way back to Pittsburgh when they receive word Jake’s father has been murdered. The kicker is an item they recently acquired for a client may be in part responsible for his death. Back in Pittsburgh, the three of them work together to determine who killed Jake’s father and why.
What makes Iron & Blood really neat is how seamlessly both authors weave in elements of the supernatural into the world. The sub-genre of Steampunk is hard enough to pull off without getting overwhelmed by gadgets and fantastical inventions. Adding in another fantastical element, such as the paranormal, makes the challenge greater. But they make it work and incorporate it into the plot of the story in a way that makes it feel natural and normal.
Another thing I liked about Iron & Blood is the setting. In fact, I think it might be one of my favorite parts of the book. As I mentioned above, the story takes place in Pittsburgh during the time period it really was The Steel City and the Martins use that to their advantage. Many of the Steampunk novels I’ve read all center around either New York City or London so it’s refreshing to see a novel set outside of those two well-trod areas. By using Pittsburgh as the background, the reader gets to see the Victorian world through the eyes of those running the steel industry and the unfortunate workers who truly made it what it was. A welcome change from oil and railroad tycoons. Combining it with the paranormal and Iron & Blood really comes to life.
If anything, the book is more paranormal/supernatural then Steampunk. The latter element being a relatively small portion of the world at the beginning and end. By and large, we are firmly entrenched on the gritty, grimy ground of Pittsburgh. This contrast makes the scenes when the reader enters the Steampunk world really stand out. I must admit I actually preferred to be on the ground in this story then up in the sky. Perhaps because it came across as more comfortably written then the airships and sky battles.
In addition to the setting, I enjoyed the plot as it often felt more like a mystery novel. It’s not just about who killed Jake’s father. More importantly it’s about why and the domino affect having him out of the picture causes and also what could happen if the murders are discovered. We, the reader, are let in that a much larger and dastardly plan is in place due to major supernatural forces are at work. Another mystery aspect is the death of workers at a mine, all of whom have been killed under mysterious circumstances. At first the detective assigned to investigating them doesn’t realize these workers deaths are connected to Jake’s father’s death.
While I enjoyed the setting and plot, one of my biggest letdowns were the characters. As I’ve noted many times on this blog, I am character-driven as both a reader and a writer. Give me an interesting character or group of characters in an interesting world and I will read it. It’s not that the characters in Iron & Blood aren’t interesting, many of the minor characters are, it’s the main characters that I feel quite didn’t do it for me. Jake and Rick feel very typical to me. Nice guys and all, which I greatly appreciate, but they lack a certain spark to make me truly interested and invested in. This is contrast with Veronique, who while she has spark, feels like she’s a cardboard cutout of the now typical plucky heroine.
The characters who stood out to me were the detective who not only sees ghosts, but also can actually talk to them. He even lives with one who stays primarily in the room he rents and guides him along when he’s stuck. He was a fascinating character and I found myself often wishing he was the primary character. I also enjoyed Jake’s mother, probably because I like it when an older female character in Victorian times doesn’t act like the stereotype of stuffy, uptight, and ignorant of anything their husband was involved with. I even liked the villains because they felt more developed and the uneasy partnership between the two villains felt more natural.
Overall, I’d give Iron & Blood by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin three pencils out of five. I enjoyed and am interested in the next book to see if the three main characters are given more dimensions to match the world they reside in.