In Retro Review: Dead Iron

Engrossing, thrilling fun.

Dead Iron by Devon Monk 

Mass market paperback of 358 pages (includes excerpt of Cold Copper) published June 4, 2013 at $7.99. 

The cover: Cedar Hunt is caught after some gunslinging on this cover by Cliff Nielsen, who is thanked by author Monk in the book’s acknowledgments. He does deserve much thanks for this gorgeous illustration, which caught my eye in the book store as I was searching for something to read. This rugged protagonist has his face in the upper right corner, looking down at some unseen foe with resolve. To the left is the text “America was built on blood, sweat, and gears.” The title of the novel is in the center of the image, with the subtitle The Age of Steam below it. Hunt’s modified pistol is in the left corner, with a trail of smoke issuing from it. Monk’s name makes up the bottom of the cover. Though it may appear there is only white space on the left of the cover, there is actually an image of something mechanical. If one were to scan the cover too quickly, he or she would miss something quite neat. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the back cover, “In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy, carrying the guilt of his brother’s death. Then Cedar is offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers — and now in the hands of an ancient Strange was banished to walk this earth. In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he’s going to save is brother and reclaim his soul once and for all…” I was intrigued by a Steampunk novel that involved magic (Don’t they always?) set in the wild west of America. Having the hero be a werewolf is a neat twist. I’ve read a few other books by Devon Monk and enjoyed them, so I thought I’d give this a try. Overall grade: A

The characters: Cedar Hunt is not the only protagonist of this novel; in fact, I would say he’s not as strong as the other two. First, Cedar is a bounty hunter cursed with turning hairy when the moon turns, but something happens to him, thanks to the Madder brothers, that changes his animal side and it was very interesting. He begins the book looking for young Elbert Gregor who’s been kidnapped, but this goals take a turn due to other events. A stronger hero is Mae Lindson, a witch, whose husband Jeb has been killed twice, yet returns from the grave to save his wife because their love is so strong. Mae is a very strong character who never lost sight of the bond she and her husband have and it was refreshing to find a witch grounded in a relationship, going beyond the typical magical action star. Young Rose Smalls rounds out the trio of heroes. She’s introduced as being different from others in town, especially from her adoptive parents, but she becomes her own person as the book progresses. The villains of the piece is Shard LeFel and his assistant Mr. Shunt. To avoid spoilers, they are excellent antagonists, with LeFel being a wonderfully evil man, whose goal incites all the conflicts in the novel. Mr. Shunt is full of surprises, but doesn’t really show his capabilities until set loose to capture Mae. There are also three supporting characters who are more than they seem: the Madder brothers — Bryn, Alun, and Cadoc. They appear to be crazy silver miners, but they have much more to bring to the story, and, thankfully, much is still left hidden by the book’s closure. This collection of characters start as the expected denizens of the old west, but evolve into much, much more. Overall grade: A+

The settings: Hallelujah is set in the Oregon territory, as the railroad is considering coming through town, which would explode the town’s wealth and accessibility to the outside world. It initially appears as the typical western town of films by John Ford or that star Clint Eastwood, however Monk quickly introduces technology — Steampunk technology — that puts the abilities of the characters in a different light. The inclusion of magic increases this world’s differentiation, and the Strange, brought to life by LeFel and Shunt, makes this western town something delightfully different from the familiar. There’s all that one would expect of starlit forests and dingy, dark mines, but by including these fanciful elements to the story, Monk makes this setting surprising and fun. Overall grade: A+

The action: The gritty fistfights and gun battles of the old west collide with the technology of machines and the supernatural elements of magic. Wisely, Monk starts small with these conflicts and builds each battle, growing larger and more impressive in scope and drama. Mr. Shunt’s capabilities tease at more massive entanglements with the heroes, and Monk does not disappoint, with a huge battle that brings all the characters together in a climax that would break the bank for most movie studios. The variety of action in this book is excellent. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: The book ends with the survivors setting out on a quest. It does come off a little too neatly and the start up of a trilogy, but I enjoyed the characters so much I wanted to read more about them. Overall grade: A-

The final line: The premise on the back of the book does not reveal all the joys this book has. The characters are outstanding, the action fun and surprising, and the mixing of genres (the West, Steampunk, and fantasy) is perfect. This was engrossing, thrilling fun. I cannot wait to read the next book. Overall grade: A 

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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