THE STEEL DISCORD by Ryan Howse (SPFBO Semi-Finalist Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is almost reaching the end of round 1! We spent the last five months cutting our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, the first of which (Uncanny Collateral) was eliminated yesterday. For the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – the rest of these books in full before announcing our SPFBO 5 finalist on Friday.
Now for our next semi-finalist elimination:
The Steel Discord
Zarachius Skie is presumed dead.
His mentor, the Arcanist Mordekai Gethsemane, had been arrested for conspiracy to commit regicide. Zarachius knew it was false. He did what had to, and snuck onto a military train to break Mordekai out.
But now, the Ancien Legion, vengeful anarchists, and Mordekai’s old co-conspirators are doing whatever it takes to bring Zarachius out of hiding. They need to know what he knows.
They need to know the secret he uncovered on that train.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I don’t look at covers much, and – a bit like First of Shadows – this one seems to be aiming for enigmatic more than enticing.
I don’t feel the cover does the book any favours; there’s quite a distinctive feel to the story (gentlemen arcanists in a French-influenced secondary world) that I don’t feel is represented in the cover at all.
Likewise. The cover really isn’t appealing, and doesn’t give any hint as to what genre the book even is.
The cover isn’t all that inspiring, if I’m honest. It gives off an illuminati thriller type of feel, which although works ish with the story, I don’t think that it sells it very well. Also, as a thumbnail when browsing Amazon, I personally found it difficult to discern what the cover was.
Inside, this is a clear case of needing an edit. The story has a wealth of promise, but it comes at a cost as more mistakes creep into the pages the further you read. Editing can be expensive, and I fully appreciate that, but taking that extra time to read, and reread, and re-reread is invaluable. I won’t hold a book back on that merit (things that cost money shouldn’t be the determining factor – not everyone has the luxury of affording these services) but I do want to raise it for fair review.
I had issues with the opening pages where I found the formatting a bit error strewn and off-putting, but I may have been looking at a different version, certainly those things are easily addressed with a good copy edit.
The prose was a bit hit and miss. There are moments where metaphors didn’t ring true to me, for example describing a hand of cards as a “miasma of utter shit,” but these were outnumbered by passages of evocative description and lines that made me go ‘wow,’ like: “Railroad tracks, those twin stitched serpents of black iron and flame.”
Overall I felt a thorough edit could have worked wonders for some promising raw material. It needed that external delivered polish to rein in some of the linguistic excess and allow the genuine quality writing to shine through – there were also a few typos that just ruffled my reading experience (e.g. ‘rubs’ where it should have been ‘ribs’).
I had quite high hopes for The Steel Discord, I had been looking forward to discovering why our protagonists had been cast out. Unfortunately, my intrigue waned the further I read as it became clearer this book needs editing. There is a lot of potential to the story and the world building. However, there are so many mistakes, a great deal of sudden scene changes, motivations aren’t always clear (I had no idea why they were conning their way onto the train), the formatting was very poor, and the descriptions were often unnecessary and tiresome: The dry stone wall surrounded it, the height of a man. Black gates made of cold-wrought iron stood in the center, allowing entrance to the courtyard.
As much as I appreciated the story’s overall originality, I have to agree with the others. The ideas are fantastic, but the execution is rough, and the typos did seem to become more and more difficult to overlook the further I read. However, I think with a rigorous copy edit to polish the prose, and perhaps a bit of restructuring, this book could be truly awesome.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
I felt the characters were all suitably distinctive and I loved the banter between Zarachius and his friend Kyran – it reminded me a bit of Locke Lamora and Jean. The playwright brother Aran and the warrior minstrel Nicola Maronovich both carved out interesting niches within the story; I would particularly have liked to see more of Nicola, who I felt was underused as a character.
The stubbornly recurrent ‘ bad guy’ combo of Holst and Marioch also had a degree of depth to them – always showing consistency in their actions and motives. Indeed as I think about them, I find myself thinking that Howse gave all of his characters the dignity of additional dimensions.
The cast of characters are very interesting, and they certainly stand out from each other. I definitely feel they are the strongest aspect of this book; they, and the initial intrigue, were what made me want to read on initially. There are a number of various characters, but they all felt distinct from one another, and presented plenty of depth.
The characters were one of the things that sold me most of this book. Like TO, I enjoyed the partnership between Zarachius and Kyran, reminiscent of other fantasy favourites. But even with this in mind, all of the characters have defining aspects and features to them, which stood out for me.
The banter between Zarachius and Kyran provided some of my favourite moments in the entire book. I really did like their relationship with each other (though it would have been nice to see this explored in more depth – perhaps with flashbacks of their growing up together).
However, I found Zarachius’ relationship with his master, Mordekai, difficult to fathom. It was clear at the start that nothing was exactly as it seemed, yet it never really became obvious (to me) what Mordekai’s motivations were, and how he actually felt about his protegee. Perhaps more will be made clear in book 2, which I’ll almost certainly be reading at some point.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
There’s two timelines at work here – well, three really if you count the italicised chapter opening detailing stages in Zarachius’s relationship with Mordekai. That can make the story a little hard to follow, but I let it sweep me along and I enjoyed the ride. The switch between past and present timelines worked well for me as it kept that curiosity going as each thread built up to its respective climax.
A lot of the action takes place on a train, which is novel, but also raises its challenges – I mean, battles on trains tend to be somewhat one dimensional and I was confused at times as to which bit of the train we were on and whether it was moving or not and how characters who had left the train could nonetheless get ahead of the train.
I found myself a bit confused at times too. It was often difficult to picture what was going on, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the timeline switches are not always used to the best effect. However, I really enjoyed how the author gradually unfolded the layers of mystery in the same way he unfolded details of the worldbuilding.
The story kicks off with our protagonist faking his own death: I was immediately hooked, my intrigue spiked. What follows is a hop back in time to discover what events led up to that. Unfortunately, I very quickly lost the thread of these events, and it wasn’t long before I had no idea why Zarachius was doing what he was… Recalling the plot feels like trying to remember a dream, wherein there are key scenes, but I have no idea how I got from one to the other.
Conversely, Aran’s story felt much more structured, it made a lot more sense. The difference between the execution of the two plot lines really made me wonder how Howse constructed his story.
The structure is a back and forth of timelines, something which many stories struggle to pull off. The Steel Discord does stick the landing, but only just. As the others have said, it’s a little tricky to know what is happening when, though I have to admit I was happy to let the story lead the way, and follow it wherever it took me. Again, as the story proceed those pesky typos did detract from the overall quality, for I still enjoyed the overall plot. A bit of weeding of words, and some restructuring here and there, and this would have so much more going for it.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original?)
For me, the worldbuilding was what sold me on this book enough to push it through to the semi-finalist stage. From the use of caitiffs (spirits) for mundane purposes like powering trains, to the various fantastical races, to the threat of brewing revolution, to the sinister hints of everyday cruelty (such as the bioanalogues – paired birds that can be used for long-distance communication by carving coded messages into their flesh), the world of The Steel Discord really does make the story feel like ‘A Concerto for the End of Days’ (the series title).
I loved the feel of the world, from aristocratic drawing rooms to trains thundering into hostile territory, hunted by monstrous semi-intelligent wendigo. A litany of monsters and an intricate magic system with enough fragility to mean it could not solve every problem.
The world building is very interesting indeed. I loved this society on the brink of revolution. The aristocracy abandoning the capital in fear of the ruler, not wanting to remain too near his ire. And through this tension struts Zarachius, like a Sherlock in his student days with Kyran, his Dr Watson, ever at his side.
There was something quite dark about Howse’s magic system, it reminded me somewhat of the magic you might find in Pratchett’s Unseen University, but with none of the tongue in cheek.
We’re all going to say it, aren’t we? Sherlock Holmes. I guess it’s elementary, dear reader.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
As I said, sometimes the prose is overdone, but other times it worked well. I liked this line: “Zarachius looked more exhumed than exhausted.”
“There are these fascinating little objects, recently created, by which one person may be able to communicate certain concepts to others even if separated by time and space. I believe they are known as books.”
I’m not saying The Steel Discord is perfect, but I warmed to it, and its good bits were more than good enough to outweigh the flaws in editing or the occasionally over-verbose language. With its atmospheric Dickensian steampunk feel, its inventive magic craft, its captivating characters, and its glorious best bits, this was my nomination as first among the six semifinalists and a potential finalist from our batch. But then this is a collective decision!
Out of our batch of semi-finalists, this did unfortunately end up bottom of my ranking. There was a lot I was expecting to enjoy at first, but the inconsistencies in the narrative really lessened that enjoyment for me. As Theo said, it was certainly atmospheric, but the errors kept my immersion at bay.
This book has certainly been polarising, but for The Steel Discord to have provoked such strong reactions among our judges is definitely a sign of a good author. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to read this in full, and to unequivocally say that Ryan Howse’s craft has improved in leaps and bounds since his last SPFBO entry (2016). Though the prose and structuring are a little rough, the ideas in this book are innovative and exciting, the worldbuilding has depth and originality, and the characters are engaging and sympathetic. As I said earlier, I’ll certainly be picking up the sequel at some point.
Mike: This was a firm fifth for me. It’s a very strong contender, but I feel that it needed a bit more TLC to really shine. Not from a general line-editing perspective, more of a structural edit. It needs a clearer progression, whereas at times it was a little confusing. One thing is for certain, though – the Hive’s SPFBO batch was brimming with promise, and The Steel Discord fought hard for its deserving place as a semi-finalist for us.
***Commiserations to Ryan Howse and his atmospheric Dickensian steampunk The Steel Discord.***
We’re now down to four semi-finalists. Check back tomorrow for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 5 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the next few days as we review our remaining semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!), and check out our introduction to round 1!