The magical world of an alternate history London is unfolded in The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith Saintcrow. This first in a new series introduces us to Bannon and Clare, a not quite harmonious team of logic and instinct. With each chapter of this suspenseful steampunk mystery, Saintcrow’s world becomes more realistic and takes the reader on a journey unlike many others.
Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.
In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.
The game is afoot…
There are many ups and downs of the The Iron Wyrm Affair but one of the highlights is Saintcrow’s characters. It is hard for me to pick a favorite character as there are three that truly stick out to me. Luckily two of my favorite are the main characters Bannon and Clare. Emma Bannon is the epitome of a modern woman who continues to be true to herself despite the time period. She revels in control and dominance, seeking magic that many perceive as dark and unabashedly takes both her mentor and servant as bed partners. For me, there’s much to love about Emma. She is judged harshly by society but keeps her feelings to herself, acting as she must. Fiercely loyal, Emma puts her service to Queen & country above all else, except perhaps herself. Archibald Clare is another interesting character and more importantly unique. Clare is a mentath, an intellectual equivalent of Bannon’s title of Prime Sorceress. Logic is key to Clare and his area of expertise is the truly rational such as engineering. In a Holmesian manner, Clare is especially fond of his power of deduction, oftentimes surprising people with his assumptions. His deductions are one of the only aspects of Clare’s character which is somewhat overdone. Though Saintcrow’s use of Clare’s gift is sparingly, I still found myself questioning its purpose. Despite that, Clare is fairly charming in a dorky sort of way and I am eager to see the development of his mentath skills.
Though I said it was hard to find a favorite character, I may have one in Malik. I love Malik for more than his rock hard body and his piercing yellow eyes. It is the fact that Malik is meant to fade into the background, being Emma’s bodyguard yet he manages to peak through, showing a distinct personality. Unlike the stereotypes of a funny or bossy lackey, Malik knows when to follow the will of Emma, even if it is influenced by his training and her magic. Emma and Malik have such a unique relationship that it should not go unmentioned.
Magic is not only the core, but is infused throughout The Iron Wyrm Affair. Throughout the story, the irrational rules above the rational and magic acts as both destroyer and savior. Unfortunately this has its downsides. The entire book unfolds as a mage war and has magical battles throughout. However, one needs to be clairvoyant to follow each action scene. It seems that Saintcrow was so focused on the mysticism of duelers powers that she left out any semblance of detail and any cause and effect. Oftentimes battles are merely a blur, and only the intention is mentioned. What use is saying a character summoned their power and their enemy fell without giving any detail to what actually happened? Luckily, this lack of vision is only prevalent in magical action scenes. Though there are many, there are several cases where the introduction of a physical battle helps to make the actions clear.
There is one aspect of Saintcrow’s writing which I absolutely loathe. I will preface start by saying this is a pet peeve of mine, so it may not irritate you as much as it did me. The Iron Wyrm Affair is rampant with slightly off names of true places. It seems as if Saintcrow found it necessary to clarify we were in an alternate history by renaming everything. However, these names tread on ridiculous in how close they are to the true names. London becomes Londinium, Queen Victoria is Queen Victrix and the Thames becomes the Themis. For as long as it has taken for the pronunciation of Thames to be common knowledge, why does Saintcrow feel it necessary to create a name which is even more difficult to imagine saying. What annoys me about this is it feels as if Saintcrow underestimates her readers. Would anyone have questioned that a magical London is an alternate one? That may annoy me but what really makes this somewhat unforgivable is that Saintcrow uses these names so often, forcing the reader to distinguish her Londinium by name alone. It cheapens how she expertly creates a truly magical world where the Queen has a college of mages and a treaty with griffins.
Through ups and downs, The Iron Wyrm Affair is still an intriguing read. Your sense of adventure will be satisfied with a plot of royal importance and each turn makes Saintcrow’s world an interesting one. Though more reminiscent of a fantasy novel than a steampunk one, The Iron Wyrm Affair manages to combine the two into an overall good read. Despite my grievances against some of Saintcrow’s writing choices, I am so enchanted by Bannon and Clare ( and Malik too) that I am eagerly waiting for the next book in the series. If you’re looking for a magical adventure which has a backdrop of a world which is both intellectual and instinctual, look no further.