Author Joseph Robert Lewis shares his love of "the amazing history of human civilization" by inviting readers into one exotic steampunk locale after another, across Northern Africa, in this fast-paced adventure. The setting alone sets The Burning Sky (Halcyon #1: A Steampunk Thriller) apart from most of the Steampunk genre, rooted as it is in the neo-victorian UK or US. Quite apart from the splendid abundance of airships, mechanically augmented villains, and steam-powered industry, Burning Sky held my attention by forcing me to imagine how history and civilizations would have unfolded in a world where "Europe never emerged from the last Ice Age and only the southern regions are habitable. North Africa is cool, wet, and fertile. Ancient nations such as the Persian Empire have persisted, though others, such as the Romans, never rose to power."
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The action kicks off right away in this novel, with fiery explosions at the airship hangars and the city of Tingis's train station. Two of the protagonists, Major Syfax Zidane of the royal marshals and Lt. Taziri Ohana, airship engineer, are suddenly off chasing a stolen airship seeking answers. Who would destroy the main modes of transportation out of the city? Is the missing Ambassador involved? Can anyone dislike Crosby, Stills, and Nash so much as to bomb the Marrakesh Express?
While the chase unfolds, a second storyline introduces readers to Princess Qhora of the Incan Empire and her lover and guardian Don Lorenzo, the Espani swordsman. Disrupted in their quest to deliver exotic New World pets (Great Cats that are long extinct from our own world) from her cousin the Prince-Emperor across the ocean to the Queen of Marrakesh, they're forced to seek other means of transport to their destination. Before long, we learn how their mission entangles with the same shadowy villains behind the Tingis violence in a conspiratorial plot to replace the Queen with an aristocrat who is unafraid to apply Steampunk technology for her deadly ends.
Other noteworthy character include the bionically Taser-equipped Ambassador Chaou and the stiletto assassin Shifrah, one Bad Samaritan. I couldn't find much to complain about in this novel, although I did find myself wrenched out of the story a few times by dialog that sounded too contemporary to my ear: "Oh shut up you big babies. You're all fine. They're juts little cuts. No one's dying, no one's lost any eyes. And no one's head is sliced open. Just settle down" is one example that came to mind. I also would like to have seen a stronger emphasis on the clockwork, mechanical, brass-goggled gizmology that one comes to expect from the genre, but that could simply be my sci-fi tastes imposing. For those of my leaning, there was some vaguely satisfying imagery in Doctor Medina's abattoir laboratory, however.
On the other hand, these small failings are more than made up for by the welcome threading of important themes not always addressed in Steampunk, a genre not generally known for it's confrontation of contemporary issues. Change and Progress aren't always universally beneficial things, and Lewis is determined to remind us of the human cost. Steam-powered prosthetic limbs are all well and good, but when the reason for their high demand is industrial accidents brought on by rapid modernization... one pauses at the ethical dilemma. Marrakesh's matriarchal society also called attention to our own too-often unequal treatment of the genders. There is another noteworthy line spoken by a character from the glacier-frozen and economically underdeveloped Europan nation of Hellas (AKA: approximately Greece on our own real-world globe). Speaking to characters from the more prosperous and "First-World" nations of Africa, he complains: "Europa isn't a country, you know. It's a vast continent, filled with many different nations and peoples, languages, and religions!" These reversals of fortune seen in Burning Sky subtly remind us that ours isn't the only perspective on matters.
I'm looking forward to reading books 2 and 3 of The Halcyon Trilogy, and think that readers hungry for a taste of some exotic flavor to their Steampunk will agree.