The second novel in Dave Freer’s steampunk series, The Steam Mole, starts off where the first novel, Cuttlefish left off. Since I have not read Cuttlefish, it was an interesting experience to be thrown midway into the character’s development and adventure. Unfortunately, the transition was not an easy one.
Tim Barnabas is a submariner from the Cuttlefish, a coal-fired submarine. Clara Calland is the daughter of a scientist who carries a secret formula that threatens British Imperial power. After a daring chase across the globe, they have brought the secret to Westralia. Here, much of Australia is simply too hot to be habitable by day. People are nocturnal, living underground and working outside at night. To cross the deserts they use burrowing machines known as “steam moles.” With the Cuttlefish out of action, her crew take jobs on these submarine-like craft.
Duke Malcolm, of the Imperial Security Service, transports Clara’s rebel father to a prison in Eastern Australia, hoping to bait her into attempting a rescue. Clara looks to Tim for help, only to find he has fled from a racist incident into the desert. She takes a steam mole in search of him. The two head to Eastern Australia, where they discover an invading force with plans to take Westralia. Forced to survive in the desert, they encounter the intolerance meted out to the aboriginal people. Can they save Westralia from falling under British rule? And should they?
Though an intriguing concept, The Steam Mole feels more like an old western in both good ways and bad. Throughout the book, I kept waiting for a steampunk world to develop and it never did. Freer added many generic steampunk elements – a female scientist, a host of engineers, airships – which ended up clashing with the overall plot and narrowly place this book in the steampunk genre.
The Steam Mole is exactly what it sounds like, a man-made, steam-powered mole. Though this concept could have gone further, Freer’s prose is a tone not unlike a list of parts included to build your new bookcase. I take no issue that the title invention serves a mundane purpose. However, why must the entire book revolve around the banal and mundane? Entire chapters are dedicated to characters traveling across Australia. This makes a bad argument for the “it’s about the journey not the destination” motto because Freer does not have his characters take a journey. They merely pass time as they get to their destination. Unfortunately this feeling continues throughout The Steam Mole and the ending feels anticlimactic with a vague final battle and subsequent summary of what characters did to return to their normal lives.
The characters in The Steam Mole are both forgettable and unforgettable. One of the biggest parallels between The Steam Mole and a black and white western movie was the narrow view on race. Freer clearly divides characters into colored and not; making the two non-white characters antiquated caricatures. One is clearly defined as the slow inmate who is a murderer in defense of a woman and the other is a humble engineer trying to make his way in the world and fearful because the girl he loves is white. For me, one of the greatest things about steampunk is the ability to place modern social views and sensibilities in another time period. It is where women are bold despite the world they live in and everyone secretly wants to wear a corset. Unfortunately, the author does not embrace the allowances of the genre, instead falling to the conventional outlooks of a Victorian age society. As an aside, the book is not actually set in the Victorian age but in 1976. This does not make much sense and only seems to add to the confusion of stereotyping.
The Steam Mole is written to showcase many characters as it switches to the point of view of each. Though it was nice to have insight into various minds, the point of view switches so often that I was left confused as to who was thinking and where they were in relation to the other characters.
The Steam Mole is not a terrible book but merely focuses on the ordinary. If I wanted a book on the ordinary, I would read nonfiction. Steampunk is one of my favorite escapes but The Steam Mole feels like anything but. If traveling across the Australian Outback seems like your idea of a good time, feel free to read this book. However for me, The Steam Mole just wasn’t an adventure worth taking.