Steel and Song
I always greet the first book in a new series with a combination of anticipation and dread – it’s always exciting to try something new, but the possibility of getting burnt out by yet another series is so high these days it’s practically a guarantee. Fortunately, the world building in Steel and Song saved it from being a first-book-only read for me. Unfortunately, the romance itself left much to be desired – this is less a story with a HEA and more a giant prologue with great world building.
Tova Vanaskya is an gutrash airwitch. Normally, this wouldn’t mean much, but during these days of war, the Russians are drafting all the witches and sorcerers they can find to support the cause. Field sorcerers can find and set off mines, healers are sent all over the lines to support the troops and the doctors, and airwitches fly. With their powers over air, airwitches like Tova lift everything from single person fighters and flyers to giant aileron airships high above the battlefields. Unfortunately, all those with magic will burn out sooner rather than later, leaving an empty husk of a person behind. But Tova doesn’t care about that.
Tova cares about few things, actually – as a Sami gytrash (the Sami are a suppressed people, who the Russians have been working on “re-educating” while “gytrash” is a catch-all for people with magic), she has only her mother and sister to rely on. She is surprised by being conscripted for the war effort, pulled away from her family without a chance to say goodbye, and has no expectations when she is confronted by a tall Cossack (noble), Piers Nikolayevich Dashkov, who needs a new airwitch (after the last one went into her death throes and crashed his aileron.) Tova has no training at all, and although she is able to lift the ship, she doesn’t know how to interact with her crewmates, or her captain. Luckily for her, Piers cares less about that than getting his ship in the air and returning honor to the family name.
While I enjoyed the story, I could have used something like a quick Wikipedia entry about the world Bolton has created, and the terms she uses. I did google a few things (like the Sami, who are apparently native people in the northeastern areas of Russia), which helped, but I find it frustrating to have to look things up to figure out the story. There is also a heck of a lot going on over the course of the story. We have the war between the Russians and the French, the building revolution of the gytrash against the Russians, Tova’s story woven into the whole thing, Piers’ story within his family and his social sphere, and then, finally, hidden back in a corner, the romance. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if the romance would really happen until the very end – Tova and Piers have sex at one point, but there don’t seem to be any emotions attached.
Tova herself was problematic. She is alternately terrified and passive, and then turns around and reacts with little to no respect for the laws that could have her killed. For example, there is a lot of talk about how joik (traditional Sami folk singing) is forbidden – Tova even notes how she could be killed for doing it – but every time we turn around, Tova is joiking (if that’s the word) again and again. Described as “unearthly wailing” by those around her, she even does it in front of her captain!
But most of the time, Tova’s mercurial nature was what kept the story moving. I wanted to know more about Tova and Piers and how their relationship progresses, as both a couple and as commander and subordinate. Tova definitely grows as a character throughout the story, as does Piers – though he is letting go of his past, while Tova holds hers close as fuel for the future.
Also the world-building is absolutely fantastic. Even with all the googling I had to do, it was really easy to get sucked into this alternate Russia. The world and all the secondary characters really feel alive – we don’t get a bad guy who is bad just to be bad, we get someone with a history we get to learn a little about, and we see and understand why he is acting that way. And more importantly, the main characters see and understand it as well.
It’s such a fascinating story built in a dieselpunk world (less copper and brass, more steel and iron). The Russian background was incredibly interesting, and something I didn’t know much about. The overarching story stayed intact throughout the many, many, many plotlines, the little strings of plot were tied off, if not completely than at least to the reader’s satisfaction, and still leaves enough behind to continue the story into the next book. I really enjoyed the story, and have every intention of continuing the series as Tova’s story continues.