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The Iron Assassin
by Ed Greenwood
Tor, $25.99, 320pp
Published: June 2015

While its agreeable front cover, its concept of a steampunk Frankenstein's monster struggling under the control of multiple masters and its status as a rare novel from Ed Greenwood outside the 'Forgotten Realms' make 'The Iron Assassin' all rather promising, I was disappointed quickly and often.

The first and most notable problem is the insanely large cast of characters. The book opens with an expansive dramatis personae that lists no less than 98 of them, many of whom I'd forgotten by the time I finished reading, and the descriptions provided add more than a few spoilers to boot. To make matters worse, many of these folk are nobles and so go by multiple names. For instance, Rose Gordhammond is also Lady Harminster and she's mentioned under each name at points as well as, a lot more frequently, as simply Lady Rose.

Also, I'd believe that Greenwood conjured up his formulaic names by using a random Victorian name generator if only the formula didn't so often have purpose. Most of the important characters have compound surnames comprised of two words that both have meaning in isolation and suggest something of the character's character: Hardcastle, Roodcannon, Grimstone and so on, including Mr Bentley Steelforce, the Iron Assassin of the title.

It takes a lot of effort to keep everyone straight, especially as 'The Iron Assassin' is not a long novel, thus meaning that we're introduced to a new character, on average, every three pages of the three hundred that the book runs. It's difficult, especially early on, to keep track of who's who, who is also someone else and who's on whose side, not to mention who we really should care about and who's only there to be disposable.

The disposable characters are the easiest to figure out, given that everyone who has a name has a job to do and everyone else is merely fodder for the bloodthirsty author to do away with before we learn anything about them whatsoever. Most of these are beagles, the constabulary in this world, who come across rather like Victorian stormtroopers because they're faceless armed men who can't hit the side of a barn from six feet away. They die in spectacular numbers, apparently existing only to raise the body count and perhaps delay proceedings enough for more important people, the ones with names, to do something.

With such a massive cast to personalise his story, Greenwood has little time to tell us much of anything about any of them, meaning that few have any substance at all and none have much. If he'd have given them depth, this would be the size of 'War and Peace', but he only has a fraction of that to work with. That means that everyone's a supporting character to the big picture and nobody gets the chance to explore more than two dimensions.

Bentley Steelforce, the Iron Assassin, could be interesting if explored properly, as could a number of others. Jack Straker, Lord Tempest, is a gentleman scientist action hero, a sort of cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, with Bleys Hardcastle as his Watson. Rose Gordhammond, Lady Harminster, presumably will end up as his love interest, but there's no time for that here either. The mysterious Uncle is a pulp villain skulking in both shadows and anonymity, which would make him interesting even if he didn't lead the Ancient Order of the Tentacle. However, the megalomaniacal Lady Constance Roodcannon has more potential as his rival in villainy.

All these folk are here to battle for power in an alternate British Empire, the Empire of the Lion. We know we're not in the real one because the chapters track the days of Octember and because we're on the third Queen Victoria, who is broken and surviving only through how science has mastered iron and steam.

The sides are easily delineated. Straker is an Investigator Royal, a Dread Agent of the Tower, a Sworn Sword of the Lion, and he brings Lady Rose into the fold early on, too. Loyal to the crown, these are our heroes, against whom Roo, a former lover of the Prince Royal and the mother of his illegitimate son, and the ever-mysterious Uncle stage themselves as villains.

Battle soon commences, with the most dangerous weapon being the Iron Assassin of the title. He's a former chimney sweep resurrected from the dead by Lord Tempest and now massively powerful. Manipulated from afar by etheric waves, control of the monster shifts between Straker and his evil counterpart tinkerer, Norbert Marlshrike, adding some uncertainty to proceedings. Ethics never raise their ugly head, no doubt because of time constraints, but the creature does fight for control of his own self, and, frankly, we're always on his side.

The avid pulp reader in me thrilled to a Victorian world in which the Sworn Swords of the Lion and the Ancient Order of the Tentacle battle for control of an empire and Ed Greenwood does demonstrate at points that he's up to such a task. Sadly, he makes many poor decisions about how to structure the book that become more and more annoying as it runs on. The unmanageably vast cast of characters is the first problem, but there are others.

For instance, I was continually entranced by clever Victorian sentences, Greenwood apparently in kinship with what James Blaylock has said about his steampunk novels, namely that he wishes to both read and write paragraphs that stand alone as objects of beauty to lovers of language, long and possibly meandering creatures but always grammatically correct. There are many of these to offer in 'The Iron Assassin,' for which Greenwood should be praised. Yet, he keeps following them up with others that are broken and deserve disdain. As if every preposition has to follow a period.  With such anachronistic effect that I despaired. For an end to such run-on nonsense. And such wild disregard for grammar.

Another problem is with the use of deus ex machinae to spur the story on as a rollercoaster ride. I wonder if Greenwood wrote this as quickly as it reads and, finding himself stuck in a cliffhanger-like scenario here and there, refused to go back to rewrite it and chose instead to create some device to allow the characters to move on regardless. That's certainly how it read to me.

One that adds to the confusion created by the large cast is the vignette approach that Greenwood takes which reminded me very much of modern filmmaking. Instead of shooting scenes that run on at length and allow characters to develop with strong dialogue or setting, like Howard Hawks or John Ford used to do, Greenwood instead cuts rapidly between vignettes like Guy Ritchie, allowing only an impression to be given before shifting to another one and another.

This would be a much more enjoyable read, not to mention a more easily understood one, had the chapters been dedicated to single focal points. Explore the connections between Straker, Lady Rose and the Iron Assassin in one chapter, then devote the next to Uncle's schemes and his Tentacles carrying them out. Don't skip back and forth between them to the point we lose track about whom we're even reading.

I did make it all the way through 'The Iron Assassin' and I can't say that I didn't find enjoyment at points, but it was much harder work than a pulp adventure novel should have ever been.

The best part of it is the sweep of the story, taking a good setting and introducing conflict with a wild host of twists, turns and reveals. There's a good story in here screaming to be heard, but it's constantly kept down by the approach that Greenwood takes throughout. There's every opportunity for an inevitable sequel to succeed, if only it runs twice as long and quits leaping around so much. I hope Greenwood allows his world to settle down and find the depth it deserves. He's a veteran worldbuilder of renown, having explored 'Forgotten Realms' for decades, but this series needs a better editor. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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