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Review, Free-Wrench by Joseph R. Lallo

Must steampunk be set in some alternate history? Or can it involve peoples and places that never were? Though I prefer the historical sort, this “steampunk fantasy” can be enjoyable as well. It gives the writer more freedom, but with that comes the responsibility to create an interesting and believable world. Will the result be frightful or fabulous?

I picked up Free-Wrench using one of the free book credits on my trial subscription to Audible. The commute to my day job is an hour each way, so I saw this as an opportunity to get some “reading” done. My goal was to discover a new steampunk author whose books were heavy on adventure rather than the period romances which dominate the genre these days. Joseph Lallo’s “Free-Wrench” series fit the bill. It has a smart and spunky heroine who falls in with the group of trouble-prone smugglers who crew the airship Windbreaker.

Free-Wrench (published 2014) has all the mandatory elements of steampunk: besides airships, there are steam engines, goggles, gears, and a genteel society beset by scoundrels. The protagonist Amanita Graus is a rare female boiler mechanic living in the isolated island nation of Caldera. When she hears of airship-borne smugglers bringing goods from the outside world, she meets with them in hopes of finding a cure for her terminally ill mother. The smugglers confirm that there are wondrous medicines on the continent, but this rare item would require a special order which they would bring back a month later. Amanita fears they’ll abscond with her payment, so she negotiates passage for herself to the mainland. Thus the adventure begins.

The Windbreaker is a cramped and rickety craft, with barely enough room and provisions for its current crew of five. Thus they expect Amanita to do her share of the work, with the explicit threat that previous passengers who did not would be cast into the sea. Amanita struggles with both airsickness and her ornery crewmates, who view her people as impractical slackers. Just when she’s getting the hang of it, pirates attack them, crippling their ship. As a boiler mechanic, Amanita has the skills to repair the damage but the captain forbids her to do so. Airship repairs are a monopoly of the mysterious Fug People, whom the crew fear with superstitious awe. Desperate to save her mother, Amanita secretly defies his orders, leading to an unforeseen and dangerous series of events.

Free Wrench is heavy on action and Andrea Bates’ narration on the audiobook edition is very dramatic and engaging. The characters are interesting and engaging though a bit stereotypical. It’s reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, except that the captain is not a rugged young hunk but a crusty old air-dog. I enjoyed the book immensely, despite the fact that I immediately guessed the secret of the Fug People’s mysterious power. Lallo’s writing is fast-paced and polished but a bit awkward at times. The characters sometimes talk too much in the midst of action scenes, and there are times when the point of view shifts unexpectedly. Despite these complaints, I rated the book 4 out of 5 stars. I do intend to get additional books in this series.

A bit of advice for people new to the Audible service: audiobook prices vary wildly, so if you’re doing the two free trial books, pick something expensive. At $4.89 on Amazon, Free-Wrench is a bargain. I should have saved my credits for pricier titles, such as my next selection Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere at $23.95. Ouch!

If you like spunky female protagonists, you’ll love our Professor Ione D. series. We have two books in the series, Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, and Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident. We’re working on a third, Professor Ione D. and the Steam-Powered Minotaur, which we hope to publish before the end of the year.

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