Sunday, 27 December 2009

Review: Thomas Riley by Nick Valentino

For more than twenty years West Canvia and Lemuria have battled one another in a constant war. 

From the safety of his laboratory, weapons designer Thomas Riley has cleverly and proudly empowered the West Canvian forces with his brilliant designs. But when a risky alchemy experiment goes horribly wrong, Thomas and his wily assistant, Cynthia Bassett, are thrust onto the front lines of battle.

Forced into shaky alliances with murderous sky pirates in a deadly race to kidnap the only man who can undo the damage—the mad genius behind Lemuria’s cunning armaments—Thomas’ own genius is put to the ultimate test.

I have slightly mixed feelings about this book, caused to a large degree by the fact that I had only recently finished reading Boneshaker, Cherie Priest’s brilliant steampunk adventure. Thomas Riley has all the ingredients in a book that would normally have me raving about it but if I am perfectly honest I have been left feeling a little disappointed. It is chock full of fast-paced swashbuckling action, with memorable characters and a cracking storyline reminiscent of the classic pirate or period adventure movies, but in a steampunk setting. It has sky pirates and mid-air battles in all manner of airships and dirigibles, many amazing steampunk gadgets and weapons and a dashing, reluctant hero in the form of the titular Thomas Riley. The characters wear corsets, goggles, high collared shirts and neckerchiefs tied with fancy knots. There are also fictional countries, engaged in a 20 year war, called West Canvia and Lemuria, and even a spot of alchemical science thrown in for good measure. What more could a steampunk loving boy ask for? So why didn’t I totally love this book?

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it as a really good introduction to steampunk fiction, but there are elements of the story that I felt could have been better. My first gripe is that the characterisation could be more solid. Thomas and Cynthia, his assistant, are weapons designers who are reluctantly thrust into front-line battles and adventures deep inside enemy territory as part of their quest. During these adventures they see for the first time the pain and bodily destruction that their weapons are capable of, at which they show remorse and question the morality of their work...... but this never seems to last long, as mere pages later they are yet again firing acid-filled bullets at their enemies. We never get the chance to really see inside their heads and empathise with them. This book, although supposedly originally written for the adult market, is being marketed at the 13+ age range (even though unlike most YA books both main characters are in their mid to late twenties), and I feel that these days Young Adults expect a little more from their characters than this book offers.

I was also a little confused by the location of the story. I presumed at first that West Canvia and Lemuria were purely fictional places, although Lemuria was very obviously heavily influenced by the culture of Germany/Prussia, and the places, characters and attitudes have a distinctly European flavour. However, in one passage more than half way through the book we are informed that a character says something in a British accent, and Thomas and Cynthia also end up landing with their pirate captors in the Seychelles. So are we in an alternative mainland Europe? Somewhere else? Who knows, as the flight to the Seychelles seemed significantly shorter than it would have been in a real-world setting. I have since read a number of articles and interviews written by Nick Valentino where he says that he “left it up to the reader to determine the time frame and where these countries actually are. I like letting the reader use their imagination and therefore making the story more personal.” This is as it should be when writing science fiction /steampunk fantasy but I was just left feeling a little confused at times (he has also said that he based West Canvia on the culture of the Netherlands and Lemuria on that of Germany). I have also since found this map (absent from the book) on another website which may or may not add to the confusion, but would have made a great addition to the final printed version of the book:

My final moan – after many white knuckle escapades, with Thomas and Cynthia escaping the clutches of death on several occasions, the final climactic fight scenes seem a little rushed. At one point, as I got close to the last 40 or 50 pages, I began to wonder whether the story would be brought to a satisfying conclusion, or was it the first in a series where I would be met with the dreaded “to be continued” at the end. But no, the story does come to a proper end, but in doing so some plot aspects are a little rushed through. For example, at one point Thomas has a strange artefact in his pocket (although why he chose to purloin this specific one from the many others that were in the room we are not informed); said artefact gets broken in two during a fight scene, causing the temperature of the room to plummet, and our hero becomes surrounded by ghost-like people. When later asked about the reasons for this Thomas answers “I have a vague idea. I truly wish I could tell you, but we don’t have time to find out for sure”, and then when asked by another character, he replies “We opened something, a door perhaps, something beyond my comprehension”..... and that is pretty much that. Is Mr Valentino leaving things open for a sequel? I do not know, but it is certainly a plot hole that could have been filled a lot better.

So should you go out and buy this book? Although I have written quite a lot about the things I was disappointed with, I would suggest that much of this is the fault of the editor and not the writer, and so I would still say a resounding “yes”! It is a very boy-friendly action, adventure romp in a well-imagined steampunk world, and the gadgets and weapons are fantastic and great fun to read about. The story is very fast paced and has a lot of appeal for reluctant boy readers. I hope Mr Valentino adds more books to the series, as I feel that Thomas and Cynthia, and some of the secondary characters, still have stories to tell. I believe that he is also writing a series of Young Adult short steampunk stories called The Young Alchemists and I look forward to reading these in the future. Mr Valentino is also trying to widen the Thomas Riley steampunk experience for his readers by offering an exciting website where you can even sign up to be a sky pirate.


  1. It's great, isn't it! Love this cover and the Boneshaker cover as well. In fact the whole Boneshaker package is pretty awesome - sepia colured font on off-white paper.