Frankly, I'm stunned that I didn't like this novel more. I haven't seen a book that's more obviously up my alley for years, but I had trouble with this one.
As the title suggests, it's a sequel to Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea', returning Captain Nemo to his Nautilus and setting him on an intriguing mission. The amazing cover art, by Raymond Swanland, featuring that submarine in the grip of a mechanical squid, is something I'd love to put on my wall. The author, C. Courtney Joyner, is a scriptwriter by trade, with a whole string of Full Moon features to his name, including sequels to 'Puppet Master' and 'Trancers'. He wrote 'Prison' and 'Class of 1999' and the highly underrated 'Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge'. How could I not appreciate this?
Well, I appreciated its sweep and I appreciated certain parts of it but, if someone asked me what I thought of it in conversation, I'd probably start my reply with, "Well, I didn't hate it." That's hardly promising.
The basic concept is good: mechanical kaiju vs. 19th century shipping. Ships are being sunk all over the place and what few survivors there are speak of giant monsters attacking them. The only nation not attacked thus far is the United States, suggesting that they might be behind it all, and the rest of the world is starting to look into banding together to combat this apparent American threat.
President Ulysses S. Grant is desperate and he can't call on Jim West because I'm sure Tor weren't going to pay for those rights, so he decides, on the recommendation of his advisor, John Duncan, to solicit the help of Captain Nemo, firmly ensconced in the public domain and currently languishing in a former Confederate prison in Richmond, VA, awaiting the moment at which he'll be hanged for the destruction wrought by his naval campaign against the warmongers of the world. He orders the release of the dangerous captive, returns him to his Nautilus to make it seaworthy once again and sends him on a quest to discover who and what is destroying these ships before the world is plunged into the state of war he hates so much.
I liked this idea a lot. I felt the scene where Nemo and the Duncans (John and his daughter Sara, who becomes one of the key characters in the book) inspect the rusted and waterlogged Nautilus; it's heartbreaking for Nemo and it isn't much less so for us. Much of the steampunk aesthetic we know today evolved from the designs that were used inside the Nautilus in Walt Disney's 1954 version of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'. Now imagine all that wrecked. Later on, as he sets off on his mission, we feel with him the freedom that comes with the open seas.
However, I think the story takes too long to get going. We spend more time with Grant than we need to and, for the longest time, he seems to be the dynamic character that the story needs. Nemo hovers moodily while Grant plays the action hero, receiving and returning fire, making tough decisions and preparing a dangerous response to the threat against his country. I don't need Captain Nemo to turn into Indiana Jones, but if the novel is called 'Nemo Rising', then let's have Nemo rising rather than Grant sidetracking.
The one thing I really hated was Joyner's affectation for compound words, the majority of which he obviously made up. He doesn't attempt to mimic the often dense Victorian prose style, as so many steampunk and proto-steampunk authors have done over the decades, which is fine, but I could have done without the faux hipster language: 'his leg, pain-dragging', 'he'd rum-celebrated for hours' or 'he pulled it along, muscle-stiff'. Some of it approaches what Tom Waits might conjure up, like 'Fulmer snaked the crate-maze to the barrelhead'. Some of it has an elegance to it, like 'She ignored the pungent mix of opium smoke, lilac, and whore-whispers'. Mostly, though, it's just annoying: artificial and out of place, as if Joyner has an urge to be cool rather than descriptive.
Fortunately, there are other things about to show up which are cool inherently and don't need him to construct more hyphenated vocabulary. How about a small army of four foot tall spider robots, crawling over a ship, spitting acid at anyone or anything that moves? How about the giant squid, a welcome inevitability given the cover art? How about... well, I absolutely can't go into a number of other fantastic creations, because that would venture into serious spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that they go a long way to making this book worthwhile. The one other one I'll mention is the Aero Force Ship Number One, but I'll let you discover how cool that is.
All these things tie to the concept of hybrid mechanics, which is a superb example of what steampunk does so well, looking forward from a point in the past to a distant future. Many of these futuristic creations are crafted with intricate mechanics: gears and servos and flywheels within flywheels, all swamped in whale oil and given life of sorts through a wild power source, whose origins we explore later in more sections I won't divulge.
These are points where this book finds value. I loved the hybrid mechanics, I loved the search for them and I loved much of the time we spend on the Nautilus. I particularly enjoyed the points where Nemo philosophises, explaining his faith in mankind to always do the wrong thing or why he ironically uses violence to stop the warmongers. In short, I enjoyed a lot of parts of this book, but I didn't enjoy how they fit together.
It feels like Joyner had a whole bunch of stuff he wanted to put down on the page, so much so that he couldn't bring himself to cut chunks of it out and focus better. In many ways and even though he gets such a high word count during the middle and end of the book, this isn't even a Captain Nemo novel; he doesn't get a particularly good story arc and that may be an overt part of my problem with it. There's too much of President Grant and there's too much of a few other people too. We're given subplots that don't really go anywhere and much of it interrupts time that could have been spent developing Nemo into something more than the puppet he seems to be here.
But, like I said, there's much to enjoy too. What I'm hoping is that Joyner returns with another Vernian novel, whether with Nemo or not, and makes the whole thing flow better than this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell