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Not Steampunk: “14” by Peter Clines

“Cover” of Peter Clines’ “14”, Audio Edition

This is yet another entry I found in a “Best Steampunk Books” list that didn’t actually fit the genre. 14 , appropriately published in 2014, is a sci-fi mystery centered on a hundred-year-old apartment building in Los Angeles and the eccentric tenants that inhabit it.

The main character is Nate, a thirty-something single guy who came to LA to find himself and is now stuck in a dead-end job. A tip from a co-worker leads him to a vacancy in the Kavach Building. It’s a charming historical apartment building in Hollywood with unbelievably cheap rents and free utilities. Nate moves in and meets a cast of quirky neighbors who tell him about the building’s many oddities. Each apartment is different from all the others. One of them spans two floors with twenty-foot ceilings. A second is always freezing. Another stays unrented because multiple tenants committed suicide there. Yet another, the eponymous Apartment 14, is permanently secured with heavy-duty padlocks. The building is infested with mutant green cockroaches. And though they may sleep, nobody who lives in the Kavach ever dreams.

For modern-day LA, the Kavach is a very sociable place. Nate and his neighbors enjoy weekly beer parties on the building’s roof. There’s an attractive artist who sunbathes nude, a tough retired military guy, and a studio gofer/surfer dude, among others. Many of them seem to have secrets of their own. Nate finds common ground with Veek, a female Indian computer hacker who is equally curious about the building’s mysteries. The pair’s curiosity provokes hostility from Oscar, the building’s strict German building manager. This inspires a running joke: that Nate, Veek, and their fellow snoops are the teenage sleuths from the classic “Scooby Doo” cartoon.

The book’s early silliness gives way to some bizarre revelations. Nate and Veek discover that the building sits atop a multi-mile network of subterranean tunnels. They find evidence that Nate’s apartment was the scene of a brutal murder over a century ago. Nate’s inquiries with the city and Federal governments are stonewalled. Oscar threatens them with eviction if they don’t stop their investigation. Eventually, they find that the Kavach is at the center of a terrifying phenomenon that threatens not just Nate and his friends, but the entire world.

14 was not my first exposure to Peter Clines. Previously I’ve reviewed his interesting time-travel opus, Paradox Bound. Though that book has a YA vibe, 14 is definitely aimed at more mature audiences, with sex, violence and abundant profanity. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing and the mystery is well-crafted. The novel’s biggest flaw is that the reader has to go halfway through it to get to the exciting part. Clines’ descriptions are good, but he describes everything, including details of Nate’s mind-numbing job. Some of that’s funny, and some is just frustrating.

I bought the audiobook version, narrated by Ray Porter, who does a competent job, but as with many of his fellow voice actors, his character accents are a bit overdone at times. The book’s pacing inspired me to set the narration speed on my Audible app up 15%. (Now I play everything at that speed or faster.)

As for the book’s misclassification as steampunk, I can’t blame Clines. So why did that reviewer include it in a list of steampunk? One of the book’s characters uses the word “steampunk” to describe the antique machinery they find in the tunnels. You may say, “it’s not steampunk to say something isn’t steampunk” but dangit, some things are NOT steampunk.

In summary, I found the audio version of 14 to be a good listen, albeit a bit slow in the beginning, with some humor to keep the reader going. There’s lots of exciting action in the second half, including some tastefully done sex and violence and an element of horror. It’s definitely not steampunk, but it is a good sci-fi mystery. I give it a rating of 4 out of 5 gears.

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