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WesternSFA
Jack Cloudie
by Stephen Hunt
Tor Book; $27.99, 410pp
Publication Date: August 20, 2013
This is truly the most horrific steampunk I have ever read, but I do mean that as a compliment. Here is a ferocious adventure, rooted in the grand tradition of naval novels, but these are air ships, not age of sail fleets. The cruelty, brutality, expediency, prejudice and glory that distinguished the world-spanning navy of England are all on display in this story of a desperate young man who enlists/is volunteered when his only other alternatives are death by starvation or the gallows. Although Jack Cloudie is haunted by the losses he has endured, he becomes marked for great things in the air navy when he dreams of a Loa, one of the Powers of the air: Lemba of the Empty Thrusters.

The rival for control of the airways is not another European nation but a Caliphate, a sort of national version of that villain who is exquisitely polite and debonair as he does the most awful things. The grand vizier (it’s a tradition for the grand vizier to be treacherous, or at least power-mad) does things with magic and biology that are the stuff of nightmares.

In this milieu, Omar Barir, aptly described as “the best actor who will never appear under the lamps of the imperial theatre company,” has survived the annihilation of both his House and his religious order. He sets out on a twofold quest: to mete out vengeance, and to rescue his beloved Shadisa from captivity. There’s just one leeetle problem with that: she might not want to be rescued from the luxury of the Caliph’s court.

The two men’s paths converge, and these nominal enemies recognize in each other what Kipling described in his “Ballad of East and West”: “there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!” Together, they bring some gratifying retribution to the table.  ~~ Chris R. Paige

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