Ever since I started deliberately reviewing an Arizona novel every month, I knew I would be getting round to this one sooner rather than later. David Lee Summers may technically live in New Mexico, but he works in Arizona, as an astronomer at Kitt Peak National Observatory, and he's a regular at local science fiction and steampunk conventions here in state and who gives excellent panel. He's also a real gentleman and a good writer and I own far more of his books than I've read.
“Owl Dance” is one of those that I've read before, though it's been a long time, but, after expanding a couple of short stories into this fixup novel, he's continued that expansion into a Clockwork Legion series, which currently numbers four books, and I've been looking forward to reading the rest for a long time. After all, they're weird westerns, they continually subvert expectations and they feature a full bingo card of all the coolest things that should be in weird westerns that continually subvert expectations.
This one is set in 1876 in what was then the New Mexico Territory and it features a pair of leads who were far from the norm in 2011. Ramon Morales isn't merely a Latino lead, he starts out the novel as the Sheriff of the town of Socorro, even if he's forced to abandon that office within a single chapter. His co-lead, who naturally also becomes his love interest, is a Persian lady, Fatemeh Karimi, who's in the New World to make a new start, having escaped the oppression of her homeland. She's seen as a witch, a bruja, though she's really just a curandera, or healing woman. He's Roman Catholic and she is of the Bahá'í faith. And, as far as I'm concerned, every aspect of that makes this book worthier.
I believe their saga started in a short story, 'The Persian Witch', and that's what kicks off this novel. Each chapter has a title, but there are no contents, which highlights how this is a fixup novel rather than a collection of short stories. Initially, it seems more like the latter because, beyond the vague progression forward for Ramon and Fatemeh, each of these chapters feels like a standalone. Only as the novel starts to really pick up speed do we start to see how the early chapters are origin stories for different characters, who start to increasingly interweave as the plot runs on. Before long, they start to feel like chapters and we don't want to put the book down in case we miss something.
For those wondering about the bingo card of coolness, I should introduce some of those characters, starting with Legion, a nanite swarm of incredible age who has been wandering through space on a quest to grasp how intelligent life evolves. I did tell you that this was a weird western, right? Some relatively unconvincing psychohistory by Legion later, there's Gen. Alexander Gorloff of the Russian Empire, who serves as the villain of the piece, albeit a villain who epitomises the concept that every villain is a hero in his own story.
There's a genial mad scientist by the name of Prof. M. K. Maravilla, who earns his place in the large pantheon of worthy steampunk mad scientists. There's an unusual band of gentleman pirates under the command of Onofre Cisneros, who are raiding ships off California. There's an obnoxious young gunslinger called Billy McCarty, who has some growing to do but is certainly given an opportunity. And, last but not least, there's a proficient female bounty hunter with the fabulous name of Larissa Crimson. All these and more play out their roles in this tangled web of steampunk shenanigans.
The core of the conflict lies in Legion's assumption that it's simply inevitable that the young nation of America will grow up to rival the Russian Empire, thus nuclear showdowns in the Cold War, which is a bit of a stretch, but it prompts the nanite swarm to fix that in advance by giving the Russians a glimpse of airship technology and having them invade. It'll save the world. As you can imagine, the American army and a whole host of characters, who are not limited to those above, find ways to get included in the war effort.
It's hard not to like this from the outset. While Summers refuses to engage full gear until very late in the novel, there's plenty of action throughout, from the witch hunt which prompts our heroes to get the heck out of Socorro to the owl dance of the title, which features some cool flying machines in battle with the gigantic airships of the Russian Empire. Every time we blink, there's another neat character to keep the cast expanding, and they all get something to do, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time. The plot strands are woven with care into the novel at large.
The language finds an odd compromise between the verbose and overly descriptive fashion of many Victorian novels and the rip-roaring pulp style of the thirties. It's not verbose enough to fit among the former but too deliberate to fit among the latter. I think that's deliberate and it plays well but feels maybe a little too matter-of-fact for something that features so many elements that are weird and wonderful for the era. Maybe Summers could have shifted a little closer to the pulp style, so we turn the pages quicker to find the next thrill but enjoy just as much.
The characters are a lot of fun. The core duo share a fantastic dynamic, which promises to be one of the highlights of future books. It's fun seeing how different they are in so many ways, even though Fatemeh is above mere culture shock, but so similar in others. The rest of the ensemble cast aren't merely supporting characters but ones who would warrant "guest credits" for the name actors who would bring them to life in what would be a glorious TV series because they're co-stars in their own episodes. The real supporting characters are historical figures like scientist Dimitri Mendeleev and Czar Alexander II of Russia. I look forward to American equivalents in future novels.
What I like most about this, though, is how it continually subverts expectations. For instance, there is a chapter called 'The Clockwork Lobo', which is indeed about a clockwork wolf and therefore we're already on board with what it's going to be doing. It doesn't. It has a completely different purpose and it's a worthy one which highlights how Summers is as much a scientist as a writer. The pirates of California are the best example. We know exactly how pirates function in steampunk novels and we look forward to another runthrough of the same 'ol, same' ol, only to discover that Summers simply doesn't want to go there. Again, he has another purpose for these pirates that pays off later in the novel. Some may be frustrated by his cheating us of what we expect, but I see his subversion of the genre norms as my personal highlight of the novel.
And, yes, I'm sure that's just as deliberate as his unusual choice of characters and the ways by which he weaves owls into the narrative whenever he can. Fatemeh has the ability to talk with owls, a sort of superpower that aids her and Ramon at a few points in the book. Others see owls in a mystical or mythical light, like the Russians who remember how an owl saved Genghis Khan so are treated as symbols of great power. Sometimes this feels a little forced, but it's good to see the theming.
With a brief note of praise for the subtle way in which Summers handles the racism of the era and a nod to all the discovery that goes on as a commentary on the era, from submarines to airships via a game of baseball, I'll wrap up by looking forward to the second book. This saw print in 2011, making it an early David Lee Summers. 'Lightning Wolves' followed it in 2014, when he had a lot more work under his belt, so I'm expecting it to share the same successes but also ride a little smoother. Later books, 'The Brazen Shark' and 'Owl Riders' arrived on a two year cycle, which makes me wonder if it has wrapped up with four volumes or whether the year from hell delayed book five. Let's find out! ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by David Lee Summers click here