Technically not Steampunk: Reviewing Tim Akers’ The Horns of Ruin.
I wouldn’t go so far as to declare March “women with swords” month here on Dial H. For Houston, but, well, this book is also about a woman with a sword. And a bunch of other stuff, too, but still. Sword.
I first read The Horns of Ruin several years ago, on a train ride from Chicago to St. Louis. I needed something to read, so I snagged it at a bookstore based on its cover. The book’s been banging around my shelves ever since, and I figured I’d give it a re-read, because, well…swords. The book still holds up, and I’d managed to forget some of the plot twists in the years since I read it the first time, so it wasn’t completely retreading stuff I’d remembered. Hurray for absentmindedness!
Despite the font, and despite the whole cover entirely, I wouldn’t really label The Horns of Ruin as steampunk, because…well, there isn’t any steam, much less any “god save the Queen” style Victoriana. There’s gears and trains and the occasional airship, but it all runs on magic-based technology. Really, I dare say the book leans a little more towards the New Weird than Steampunk proper, but that’s just me being a genre snob and making nitpicky little distinctions.
The book centers around Eva Forge, the last Paladin of a dead warrior god. Metal. She’s the woman on the cover- though again, I pictured her completely different from however the cover artist drew her. Eva is a pretty fun character; she’s hotheaded and violent, yet she has the skill with which to back this up. Very much a ‘kick down the door first and ask questions later’ sort of personality. This, of course, gets her into all kinds of trouble- which is what makes the book so fun. It’s also worth noting that there’s not even a hint of romance (at least in the sexy, “I’m wearing leather pants on the cover” sense) in The Horns of Ruin– Eva doesn’t have time for that.
As a warrior-paladin, Eva has access to some kick-ass battle magic, and it’s this magic system that I remember most from The Horns of Ruin. Basically, Eva (or any other magic-user in the book) as spells (or ‘invocations,’ in the terms of the book) based on legends and memories of her god. So, she’ll chant something about how her god fought for days on end or something, and the memory of it makes her tougher and harder to hurt. Kind of like a meme with glowy special effects, or like that “Darmok” episode of Star Trek.
Eva has plenty of opportunity to use her meme-magic as well, the book opens with an assassination attempt on the head of her order, and it only gets worse from there. What follows is a fairly pulpy mystery, in which Eva stomps around, kicking down doors for answers, and otherwise gets into trouble. Eva crosses blades with cyborg zombies, sorceror-engineers, shadowy assassins, and even a couple of lizard-people. There’s some kind of big action scene every third chapter or so, which gives the book a brisk, rollicking pace.
The actual conspiracy that Eva uncovers is a bit straightforward, as those things go- I wouldn’t say it’s an excuse to have Eva stomp around and chop on people, but it’s still not very complicated. In addition, the City of Ash, where the book is set, is kind of boring. The city never really gets the sense of character, say, New Crobuzon does. Which may be a little unfair, comparing Akers to Mieville, but hey.
Really, between the rollicking plot and the cinematic magic system, The Horns of Ruin reminded me of a video game. The plot chugs along in a ‘point A to B’ kind of manner, and every so often between cutscenes, Eva’s got to bust some heads. Heck, she even refers to her invocations as “buffs,” early on. I could see The Horns of Ruin as a beat-’em-up like Devil May Cry, or even a forgotten Final Fantasy (that doesn’t suck). I don’t say this as a bad thing, mind you. The Horns of Ruin is a perfectly serviceable adventure story, but it’s not going to change your life.
If you ever see The Horns of Ruin on a shelf somewhere, and you’re in the mood for some pulpy, swordy adventure, I’d definitely recommend picking it up. It’s a standalone novel, too, so it’s not like you have to invest in reading a whole series…even if I’d love to read a sequel.
Or at least play the video game.