In her acknowledgements page, Heather Massey writes, “I wrote Iron Guns, Blazing Hearts with the goal of providing all the entertainment value I could muster”.
I'm evaluating the book accordingly. Did it sweep me off my feet? Nope. Did I learn something about human relationships, or become a better person, or achieve an intellectual breakthrough? Nope again. But the book was a loving homage to a fun and almost forgotten form of fiction, and it was certainly entertaining, so I'd say it's a success.
Iron Guns is set in 1875, in the Wyoming Territory. Violet Whitcomb is the daughter of an inventor (and an inventor herself, although she credits her father as the real genius in the family). She longs for adventure and loves the serialized, pulp Westerns of the day. She meets a handsome stranger on a train ride who could have leapt from the pages of her favorite story (Destiny Rides Again, about the adventures of Henrietta Dearheart). When the train is attacked and her father is kidnapped, she must team up with the handsome stranger to rescue her father. She and the stranger, whose name is Logan, are accompanied by Violet's father's prize invention, an automaton named Arthur, as they ride into the wasteland of the nefarious Iron Scorpion.
The greatest strength of the book was its homage to the Western serialized pulp adventure style. Violet is a great genre heroine with just enough of a modern twist to keep from being hopelessly irritating. When she makes silly mistakes, they are exactly the sort of mistakes her idol, Miss Dearheart, would make, and when she triumphs, it is through the inspiration she gleans from Miss Dearheart's fictional adventures. Everyone acts in true dime novel character with the addition of loads and loads of steampunk to keep things fresh. The image of Arthur wielding a steam-powered gun while dressed in a poncho is certainly one worth contemplating.
Unfortunately, the book's greatest weakness also lies in its homage to pulp. While Logan and Violet are both sympathetic characters, especially Violet, neither of them seem any more real than Miss Dearheart. I never worried about them or felt invested in them. I enjoyed the book when I picked it up but had no problem setting it down again when I had something else to do. Logan and Violet were just too locked in their genre to seem like real people. Of course the world is full of genre characters, but someone like Kaylee from Firefly, for example, seems like a real person who just happens to live on a spaceship. Violet and Logan are more clearly creatures that can only exist in a pulp fiction story and so I enjoy their adventures but care less about their lives.
Whether or not you enjoy this book depends pretty much entirely on how you feel about Western dime novels. If you cannot tolerate a cranky, taciturn hero who does self-destructive, stupid things periodically, or a heroine who is too stupid to live in some sequences and brilliant in others, then you won't like this. Normally I would hate those characteristics, but they were traits that were true to the genre and traits that were made believable by the character's lives and motivations, so I could tolerate and even enjoy their oddities. And I thought that the bit where Violet is in the depths of despair and suddenly draws inspiration from Miss Dearheart's story was quite a rousing moment!
If you've never read Western pulp or steampunk, I don't think this book is a great place to start. But, if you are fond of either or both of those genres, I think you'll greatly enjoy Iron Guns. It promises a fun steampunk Western adventure romance and that's what it delivers, no more, no less. I look forward to the further adventures of Violet and Logan and hope Heather Massey will in fact deliver the next installment: Metal Man Desperado.