Author: Tim Akers
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Steampunk
Publication Date: August 2009
Paperback: 480 pages
Jacob Burn: pilot, criminal and disgraced son of one of the founding families of the ancient city of Veridon.
When an old friend delivers to him a strange artifact, Jacob’s world crashes down around him as he runs not only from the law but also from those who were once friends. But even as the array of machines and strange creatures stalk him through the streets of Veridon, something even more sinister and dangerous makes its move against him, an entity that will make Jacob question everything he thought he knew about himself and the city.
Stand alone or series: Can be read as a stand alone novel, although is part of the “Burn cylce” and has a number of accompanying short stories
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: While doing research for our first Steampunk Week, I saw this title pop up on numerous essentials lists. Curiosity piqued (especially by great reviews from the folks at Fantasy Book Critic and Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review), I decided to give it a go.
Meet Jacob Burn. Criminal. Former pilot. Disinherited scion to one of the prominent founding families of the city of Veridon. Ever since the disastrous crash on his inaugural flight, fresh out of the Academy as a pilot, Jacob Burn has fallen from his family’s grace and has turned to the streets, making his way as a runner for a criminal underworld boss. Riding back to Veridon after completing his latest job, Jacob’s zepliner runs afoul of serious trouble in the form of a mysterious man that kills the crew and captain. Before the zep crashes, Jacob runs into a face from his past – a man named Marcus, who, with his last breath, entrusts an intricate cog to Jacob’s possession. Soon enough, Jacob finds himself in a world of trouble, as powerful people from all angles are hot on the pursuit of Jacob and the strange piece of machinery. Someone on the Council is gunning for Jacob’s immediate death, the Badge (equivalent of the local police force) is on the hunt, somehow the Church of the Algorithm is involved, and an honest-to-gods avenging Angel is out for Jacob’s blood. With his boss, Valentine, severing ties and refusing him aid, Jacob finds himself embroiled in a deadly predicament with nowhere to turn – except to Emily, his beautiful (but not exactly trustworthy) handler.
As the mysteries and threats begin to mount to dizzying heights, all Jacob knows is that the heart of the matter lies with the mysterious cog – and he needs to find answers, very quickly. And what he discovers will change not only everything Jacob has ever known about Veridon, but about his own murky family history and fall from grace.
Wow. There’s little not to love in Heart of Veridon. This debut effort from Tim Akers is an impressive feat of storytelling, blending the noirish elements of contemporary (dare I say Urban) fantasy with the greased, clockwork-aesthetic of the modern steampunk movement. While the plotting is impeccable in its swiftness and mounting tension, the most impressive thing about this novel is Mr. Akers’ worldbuilding. Blending the vulnerability of flesh and blood with the grime of unforgiving metal gears, mechanized beetles, and cogwork hearts, Tim Akers’ Veridon is a fascinating (at times repulsive, but always wondrous) world. Not only are the characters a deliciously creepy, memorable mix of flesh and metal (reminiscent of the works of Philip K. Dick), but so too are the resonant images that Mr. Akers creates with his writing and descriptions – for example, the operatic performance of an engram-singer as her body is reshaped by her intricate machinery for The Summer Girl; the splayed-open clockwork remains of an imprisoned mythical woman in the bowels of the Church of the Algorithm; the spidery appendages of an Anansi doctor and ally named Wilson. And, as memorable as these images are, Mr. Akers also writes a city rife with complex backdoor politics, religions competing for supremacy and power, and a history of lies that ensnares an unsuspecting populace in Veridon’s unrelenting mechanical fist. It’s a city of secrets and deceptions, evocative in many ways of the titled Dark City of Alex Proyas. Yes, the world that Mr. Akers has created is no small thing – Veridon is distinctive, complex and teeming with menace.
My only concerns with Heart of Veridon lay with the characters – specifically, with protagonist Joseph Burn and the immediate lack of character development. Jacob’s voice, as the first person narrator of the book, is rather simple and direct, crude and clipped on occasion – which I loved, as it feels very genuine for this tough, supposedly uncaring outcast. But early on and for most of the book, readers don’t really know anything about Jacob other than the outline of his fall from grace, and his general persona as a pissed off criminal with a penchant for getting shot by friends and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That said, about 2/3 into the book, readers FINALLY get an insight to Jacob Burn, flashing back to his past. It all comes together rather nicely by the end of the book, and I loved the relationship between him and Emily, and with Jacob and his father, and with the “bug” Wilson as well. While I do wish we were given more in the way of character development earlier in the book (I especially wish we knew more about Emily and her own motivations), the awesome worldbuilding and pacing of the novel more than make up for those shortcomings.
The ending of Heart of Veridon comes abruptly, as other reviewers have pointed out before me, but that does not mean it is poorly written or badly executed. Not in the slightest. Rather, the ending, heartbreaking though it may be, just left me salivating for more.
BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK?!: Hells to the yeah, it is. Not only does Heart of Veridon fit with the Steampunk aesthetic, it also has a unique political and religious society that is actively being challenged, as an integral part of the story. This is essential steampunk reading, folks.
Notable Quotes/Parts: The performance of The Summer Girl:
The Artificers approached the girl with a jar. I leaned forward. The jar was glass, and the dark contents seemed to squirm. The girl closed her eyes and opened her mouth. I could see the furtive coiling of her machine. She had beautiful lips, full and shiny like glass, and they were quivering. I wondered if she was afraid.
The Master Artificer was a tall man with arms that moved fluidly, like they were nothing but joints. He dipped his hands into the jar and brought out something shiny. The queen foetus. He placed it on the girl’s tongue and then stepped back, along with the rest of the Guildsmen. The girl’s hands fluttered to her throat and she opened her eyes, wide and white. A second later she made a coughing, gasping sound. The boy’s mother tutted and turned her face. The rest of the audience shifted uncomfortably.
It happened suddenly. The Artificers set down the jar and tipped it over. The swarm spilled out like glittering, jeweled honey, their tiny legs clicking against the wood as they washed across the stage. They climed the girl and began to nest with her, become her, entering the secret machines that made up the engram. They were seeking their queen and her pattern, the song stitched into her shell and her memory, awaiting birth and creation. The girl shivered, and she became.
She straightened up, looking across the audience. I hadn’t seen The Summer Girl performed in some time, since my Academy days, in fact. But there she was, unmistakable. She stood in front of the audience liek she ruled it, like these people didn’t exist when she wasn’t on stage, and when she was on stage they existed only to appreciate her. The girl had that stance, her back and chin and shoulders laying claim to the Manor Tomb. The swarm fed on her, rebuilt her before our quiet eyes. Her skin leaked white, her cheekbones flattened and rose, the perfect lips became more, writhing as they changed. She stood taller, her hair shimmered and changed color, cascaded down her shoulders. She was older now, fuller, her hips and breasts those of a woman. The audience was silent, stunned.
The Summer Girl stood before us, more perfect than she had actually been on that long distant day. She raised an arm to us, nodded to the Lady Tomb in her seat of honor, and then she sang. Perfectly, beautifully, her voice was a warm hammer in my head. This tiny hall could not contain her, the very bones of the mountain around us thrummed with her song. I remember nothing of words or themes, as it always is with The Summer Girl. Just warm glory and peace remaking my heart, flowing through my bones, filling the cramped metal of my heart like slow lightning in my blood.
Additional Thoughts: Heart of Veridon is the first book in the Burn Cycle, but you can also check out some of Mr. Akers’ short stories, set in the same world.
On a different note, how about that cover? The team at Solaris puts together some truly amazing cover art (just check out their catalogue), and artist John Foster does a beautiful job with this piece.
And one last thing – a sequel has been announced* for Heart of Veridon, tentatively titled The Dead of Veridon – and here’s the blurb:
When an army of corpses animated by cogwork rises from the dark waters of the rive Reine and threatens to upset the balance of power in Veridon, Jacob Burn must discover who is behind this undead atrocity before the city comes crashing down around him. But will he succeed when he finds out that the very Council who has hired him to solve this mystery is working against him behind the scenes, and the only ally he can count on is his bitterest rival?
Cover art forthcoming. I cannot freakin’ wait!
* I’ve been somewhat remiss, and only just discovered that Solaris has a blog – and an awesome one at that. I highly recommend you check it out.
Verdict: If it isn’t clear, I loved this book. I *loved* this book. Tim Akers is an original, enthralling voice in the steampunk subgenre, and in the Speculative Fiction umbrella at large. I cannot wait to discover more from this promising new author, and recommend Heart of Veridon to readers from all genres and of all backgrounds. Easily, one of my favorite reads of 2010.
Rating: 9 – Pretty Damn Awesome
Reading Next: The Affinity Bridge by George Mann