Devon Monk’s Dead Iron, published in 2011, is yet another interesting example of the steampunk genre. Like most novels from the Era of Peak Steampunk, it’s of the historical kind, something we don’t see nearly enough of lately. It takes place in the 19th Century American West, featuring elements of the supernatural: witchcraft, spirits, and Pawnee curses. Its steampunk technology is more gears than goggles with automata (called “matics”) of all sorts, from pocket-sized gadgets to metal monsters helping to build the railroad. The name “Dead Iron” refers to the rails.
The setting, the remote Oregon town of Hallelujah, seems familiar at first. It’s one of those insular, closed-minded places we’ve seen a lot in Western movies. The story’s protagonists are three outcasts: Cedar, a cursed drifter, Mae, a white witch, and Rose, an orphaned tinker girl. The principal villain is Shard LeFel, the tycoon who’s financing the railroad through the town. He’s not exactly human and he has a very creepy supernatural henchman.
LeFel’s business is a cover for his real goal: to return to the world from which he was exiled. The alternative is to face imminent death in the human world. To open the portal to his home, he needs to sacrifice three special individuals. Only one of these is among the protagonists, but the two others happen to be close to them.
Dead Iron also features some well-crafted secondary characters, particularly the three Madder brothers, reclusive, eccentric miners – are they good or evil? Others are a bit over-the-top for my taste, such as the romantic trope of a husband so dedicated he keeps returning from the grave to rejoin his beloved wife. The book is a bit heavy on description at times and includes the time-honored tactic of describing a character in the mirror.
On the plus side, the book’s got plenty of action, adventure, and mystery, plus a spooky supernatural nemesis called The Strange. In the end, Monk ties it all together and provides a surprise or two, which isn’t easy to do for a jaded reader like me. This book is the first of the Dead Iron Trilogy – though the third is listed on Amazon as “unavailable.” Judging by the author’s Amazon page, she has moved on from steampunk to a prolific urban fantasy series.
Dead Iron is an interesting riff on the steampunk theme, combining world-building, action, and supernatural elements. I found it enjoyable though a bit skewed in the romantic fantasy direction for my taste. I give it four out of five gears.