Katherine McIntyre,
An Airship Named Desire
(CreateSpace, 2012)

Bea is first mate of an airship, overseeing a crew of lovable rogues -- smugglers and pirates with hearts of gold designed to be similar, in my opinion, to the crew of Serenity. (In other words, they skate the law with impunity and will defend themselves against the authorities with lethal force, but at heart they don't really want to hurt anyone.)

I picked this book up at Steampunk unLimited, a yearly event here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and I chatted brief with the author, Katherine McIntyre, who was completely charming and who gave me a quiz that indicated my position on a steampunk crew would be "recon man."

So, watch it. I assume that means I'm a tough hombre who you don't want to mess with.

The era in which the story is set is, for most of the book, vague. I started reading with the assumption that, since it was marketed as a steampunk novel, the story was set in the late 19th century, or perhaps the very early 20th. As the author dropped references to wife-beater t-shirts and fluorescent lighting, I began to revise my estimate upward; when she referenced floozies and speakeasies, as well as a great European war, I assumed we were into the late 1920s or '30s.

Then she mentioned a GPS chip, and I realized this isn't steampunk at all. Toward the end of the book, McIntyre refers to a war in 2030 that is within the living memory of some of her characters, so there you go -- this novel is set somewhere in the mid-21st century. As such, it doesn't fit the strict definition of steampunk; I'm not sure placing our heroes on an airship and having the captain wear an aviator's cap is enough to qualify for that niche market.

Placing the book in the fairly near future is problematic because, even given the assumption of another world war, there's no real explanation why so much technology -- computers, the Internet, television, airplanes -- seem to have vanished from the landscape.

In fact, there are more questions than answers. How did airships rise so quickly to become a standard mode of transportation? Why are people using sidearms and swords, and why are ships firing cannons at each other? Where did the Morlocks -- in this case, tattooed mercenary thugs, not below-surface dwellers -- come from? And why did California disappear into the Pacific Ocean -- was it an effect of the war or of climate change?

Perhaps McIntyre will answer some of these questions in later novels in this series. But, as a stand-alone novel, those gaps in information left me unsatisfied with her world-building.

Fortunately, the story itself is lots of fun. You get to know Bea, her captain and crew fairly well. They throw themselves into fights with little regard for the danger, and they usually come through unscathed.

There's a lot of action, and McIntyre gives her heroes plenty of antagonists -- from the aforementioned Morlocks to the unidentified employers who hired them for a daring theft and smuggling job but don't want to pay for the goods, from the "martial Brits," aka Redcoats, who are the dominant global authority to a lone turncoat from within who shocks Bea with his unexpected betrayal.

At her side, besides the brave captain who runs the ship, are a sexy gypsy with a way with knives, a bold war veteran, a brilliant doctor, a wise-cracking navigator, a young runaway with a genius-level knack for science, a mercenary with a gift for combat and, of course, a will-they, won't-they love interest.

Yeah, I think the author likes Firefly. But so do I, so I'll take it as a homage.

By the way, Katherine, I'd love a clearer idea of what the ship, Desire, looks like. It has a balloon for lift and sails for guidance; I read through much of the book picturing Captain Shakespeare's airship from the movie Stardust, but that no longer fits into McIntyre's more modern setting. Give me a description, please!

book review by
Tom Knapp

31 December 2016

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