Blood Ties: Book 1 of the Blood War Chronicles by Quincy J. Allen
Length: 276 pages
Genre: As the author puts it, a Western Steampunk Epic Fantasy. As this reviewer elaborates, a genre-blending mashup of Fantasy, Paranormal, Steampunk and Western
Summary: Half-clockwork gunslinger Jake Lasater and his blue-eyed mulatto riding partner Cole McJunkins storm through a clockwork Weird Wild West battling werewolves, Chinese Tongs, crazed European soldiers and a deadly clockwork mercenary called Ghiss aided by a talented horse with a mighty kick named Lumpy, a beautiful Chinese tinker magician named Qi and his fast-on-her-feet ward Skeeter. Oh, and in the mix there’s a savvy mad emperor and sexy mysterious noblewoman in need of assistance as well.
Set in a vaguely post-Civil War American West, Jake’s adventure begins, after a few preliminary poker games, gunfights and assassination attempts, when he receives a telegram from Qi asking for his help on a job in San Francisco. San Francisco, where the Chinese Tongs who tried to kill him are headquartered. But does our hero turn down an opportunity to head straight for danger? Of course not! “Well, son, lemme tell ya…when a lady like Qi Lau Xing sends you an urgent telegram asking for help, you pretty much get off your tail and lend a hand. You’ll understand better when your suspenders are a little further from the ground.” Without spoiling the rest of the story, let it be said that mayhem and swashbuckling ensue, introducing a vibrant and well-drawn world, peopled with vivid characters and setting the stage for epic adventures to come in later stories, as this one rollicks to a cliffhanger ending.
Review: I enjoyed this book, straight up. Definitely a genre-blender, with steampunk showing up in airships, half-clockwork repaired veterans, green goggles and top hats everywhere, paranormal touches in the occasional werewolf, magicians and enchanted guns and prosthetics, and old school Western appearing in beautifully detailed Old West scenes sent ever so slightly askew by all the madness, like calculating whether your mechanical arm can draw faster than his when the poker game goes awry. If you are a genre purist, prepare to be appalled. If you can roll with author Quincy J. Allen’s mad mix, prepare to be enthralled as he builds a beautifully detailed, creative and markedly visual world.
Why did I enjoy it? Pace. Characters. World-building. Writing.
The dominant pace is breakneck page-turning madness, as we race from one shoot ‘em up to the next, with major battle scenes every other chapter or so, lovingly detailed in Wild West meets Steampunk tropes. But this skilled author knows when to slow the dance down and savor a moment, for high stakes poker games, encounters with lovely ladies or moving moments with Jake and his ward Skeeter. It’s a fast read, with snappy dialogue driving the action.
Author Allen’s characters are beautifully detailed, nuanced and vividly memorable. Our hero Jake is noble and good, in spite of the tough hand he’s been dealt, and skilled at vanquishing bad guys, but only the ones who earn it by making life hard for others. Not a bad philosophy. Cole McJunkins is loyal, quick-thinking and equally skilled at bad-guy vanquishing, and accepts his friend’s despised “machiner” half-clockwork nature as generously as his friend accepts his mulatto skin in a racist time. Skeeter is a fun character, a rebellious but fabulously skilled and street-savvy teenager who, guess what, breaks rules but is grown up enough to handle the consequences. From what I’ve seen so far of this author, I would guess Skeeter has bigger roles to play in future episodes of this epic adventure. Then there is the alluring Qi, magician and tinker, too busy with her own life and missions to take up as our hero’s girlfriend. I’ll leave it to readers to discover on their own Ghiss, mad Emperor Norton and the European lady in need of assistance, not to mention Grandfather Chung, just to mention the more important ones. But what’s great about this writer is even the one-off small characters carve out their own moment, like Marshal Billie Sisty—female, someone who could “speak softly and still know how to work a leg iron when the situation required it”—who had to reprimand Jake for shooting within city limits, although she did allow that he “did the wrong thing for the right reason…or is it the right thing for the wrong reason.”
On world-building, maybe I’m partial because I am from Colorado like the author, and he obviously loves Colorado and its colorful Old West heritage and uses that knowledge masterfully to create a firm foundation for the crazy world he goes on to build. From an overnight stay in the Horace Tabor House to quaffing a brew at the Colorado brewery, Allen knows and loves the real Colorado, even as he covers it up with steampunks and werewolves and half-clockwork villains and heroes. He’s a visual writer, lovingly detailing the gadgets and gehaws, but never slowing the action down to do so. As mentioned above, he proudly refuses to color between the genre lines, or pick a genre for that matter, so buckle up for a few chapters as you rollercoaster from Old West to steampunk to paranormal, but trust that you will know and understand the rules of his mad world and they will eventually make sense. This is probably not a good book for someone who likes their reality real or objects to enchanted mechanical arms, but it’s a great book for someone who is delighted by creative surprises every few paragraphs.
And the writing. It is fine, damn fine. Writing in my mind is five things: the plot, the characters, the world-building, the prose and the quality of the editing. The dull stuff first—editing. I won’t suffer bad grammar or typos. I found one skinny little typo, which is miraculous in a newly published novel, so I take my top hat off to the author for delivering such clean prose. Full points for great well-motivated characters, a rollicking fast-paced plot plausible enough in its own madcap way and a beautifully detailed world, which leaves us to discuss the actual prose. I love this writer’s dialogue and humor. His style reminds me of my favorite Robert E. Heinlein stories, with swashbuckling, wise-cracking heroes, tongue-in-cheek at times with a knowing awareness and humor that leavens both dangerous and moving moments. Allen takes even the tiniest moment and gives it a little sparkle. Like when our hero has to jump naked from bed into a raging gunfight and find a way to present himself with some modesty a few minutes later to a beautiful woman, covered only by his holster. Or his description of a small moment in a card game:
““You’re called, mister,” the cowboy added.
Cole sighed and turned over his hole card. It was a king. The cowboy turned pale first, knowing he was beat, and just as Jake suspected, his face went from pale white to crimson in that slow transition far too many drunken cowboys get right before the shooting starts. Jake could see the alcohol coaxing liquid backbone into the cowboy.””
Recommendation: Read it if you are a fan of steampunk or Weird Wild West genre fiction. You will love the vivid characters, rollicking plot, madly creative world and snappy dialogue. May not have quite enough magic for fantasy and paranormal fans, and I promise there is far too much madness going on for those of you who like your reality real. As my motto is “Reality is for those who lack imagination,” call me a fan. I’m looking forward to the next installment in this madcap universe of the Blood War Chronicles.