In one of the strangest turns of events I ever experienced, I was a winner in a contest promoting the new young adult steampunk novel, Thomas Riley. Included in my winnings was a signed copy of the book, which I read just after Christmas. The book itself was quite a fast read (as I would expect one marketed to the YA audience would be), and I was able to breeze through the pages quickly.
The story is about Thomas Riley, a celebrated engineer and alchemist who, with his assistant Cynthia, is a weapons designer. Riley's nation has been at war with a rival for the last 20 years, with neither side gaining much of an advantage. Riley's weapons have been instrumental in keeping the other side from affecting life at home much. But then an attack nearby forces Riley to engage in a dangerous experiment, and when the process fails, he and Cynthia must infiltrate enemy territory to reverse the mistake. As they do so they must not only avoid enemy soldiers, but also notorious sky pirates.
The book has some not-so-great things and some really good things about it. I'll start with the not-so-great, as I feel that there are more things to like than not.
The narrative voice was a little jarring at first. I had read an anthology of steampunk fiction, and my 'ear' was tuned to the way the fiction was written for that book. When I read Thomas Riley, it didn't match what I had read in the anthology. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it wasn't what I had expected.
The pacing at first seemed a little off, as well. Once the experiment failed and the the mission really began, however, it really began to pick up. I also wasn't crazy about the body count. This seemed to be out of character for a YA novel. Perhaps it has been too long since I last read something from that section of the bookstore.
The author, Nick Valentino, could have benefited from a little tighter editing. There was one chapter where Thomas Riley is stated as having three special grenades, and then he uses at least four of these grenades! Also, a character was portrayed as speaking with a 'British accent,' despite presumption that the story was set on an alternate earth, with no indication that Great Britain existed at all.
In short, these are minor quibbles that would temporarily take me out of the story, but it wasn't hard for me to jump right back in. I found the characters to be fun and engaging. There was a good mix of courage, ingenuity and frailty present, and the supporting players seemed to have other functions rather than simply to set the leads up for more heroics.
The steam gadgets were inventive and well-placed. The 'technical' jargon was kept to a minimum, which allows the reader to follow what is happening without having to try to figure out what was just said first.
Finally, Valentino includes several 'jumping-off' points in the story that allows for sequels, without requiring them. It will be interesting to follow the series and see how it progresses.