When you’ve got lemons, the saying goes, make lemonade. Or if you’ve got a two-hour daily commute, make it enjoyable with audiobooks. Recently I’ve been doing audiobooks at a rate of one every week or so. Once again I found myself on Audible searching for another steampunk novel.
Kathleen McClure’s Soldier of Fortune: A Gideon Quinn Adventure (published 2015) seemed to fit the bill. The plot summary and the roguish hero on the cover both said action. Even the title was promising, implying that the protagonist is a mercenary.
Actually, no. The title is a pun, like the name of a bad 1990’s television series. Quinn is indeed a soldier and Fortune is the name of the world where he lives. This seems to be the trend these days, to base steampunk novels in non-historical settings. Perhaps that’s the author’s way of avoiding any controversies about those racist/sexist/imperialist Victorians. Personally, I prefer the historical option, but as long as they tell a good story, I’m fine with it.
But is Soldier of Fortune actually steampunk? I’d quibble with that characterization. Although Fortune is a low-tech world that uses airships for travel, there’s no steam power in evidence. Much of its culture is downright modern. That doesn’t make it a bad novel, just misclassified.
At the opening of the story, Gideon is incarcerated in the notorious prison at Morton Barrens. He’s serving a life sentence, having been wrongly convicted of treason. He receives a surprise pardon from the same general who oversaw his conviction. She warns him to stay away from General Rand, the man who brought the charges against him. Gideon, however, is willing to risk his newfound freedom for a chance at revenge. He immediately heads for Nike, his enemy’s hometown.
Fortune is an interesting world, a human colony that’s been out of contact with Earth for many centuries. The Earth authorities denied them any advanced technology, supposedly to prevent them from destroying the environment of their new world. The nations and cities of Fortune are amusingly named for Old Earth corporations: Tesla, Ford, Nike, Adidas, Fuji, and Amazon. Their currency is called Starbucks. The Fortunians (maybe we should call them Fortunates) have maintained many aspects of the old world. They are constantly at war among themselves and plagued by poverty. They speak English with Cockney, Scottish, and Caribbean accents. Despite their regressive social structure, they have achieved complete gender equality, with armies that seem to be around 50% female.
As I expected, the book has a lot of action. On his first evening in Nike, Quinn is attacked multiple times and defends himself with prison-bred toughness. Yet the author’s writing style puts a damper on the story’s pacing. Quinn broods constantly, engages in frequent inner monologue, and suffers frequent flashbacks to his previous life. It’s a constant tension, much like the progressive/regressive culture of the planet Fortune. On the plus side, many of the characters are endearing. My favorites were Mia, the child thief who befriends Gideon, and Elvis, Gideon’s fiercely loyal pet draco (a small flying lizard.)
Some of the plot elements are a bit stereotypical. Gideon’s troubles appear to be due to the jealousy of a husband combined with the fury of a woman scorned. But the book manages to be surprising in places. I was definitely rooting for Gideon who, under all his bitterness, was a pretty decent guy.
Since this was the audio-book version, I need to mention the narrator, Tim McKiernan. He does a pretty good job but tends to over-act a bit. He gets carried away with the different character voices and accents. This a common malady in audiobooks, and it’s the rare narrator who can make it seem natural. (See my rave about Neil Gaiman’s voice-acting skills in my review of his book Neverwhere.) The most off-putting character voice was that of Gideon himself, whose hoarse-sounding speech reminded me of Michael Keaton in Batman.
Despite these problems, Soldier of Fortune is a pretty good book. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Note that I don’t believe in grade inflation, therefore I consider anything above 2.5 to be good. As long as you don’t expect this book to have the common steampunk elements, you won’t be disappointed.
Speaking of steampunk, Arlys and I have 2 novels, a novella, and a short story in that genre available on Amazon. All are set in the “racist/sexist/imperialist” Victorian age of Earth. Check them out, if you dare!