You always hurt the ones you love, and despite the fact that I have a little crush on Nico Rosso (he writes science fiction romance, inspired by his wife, Zoe Archer – how cool is that?) I'm gonna be pretty harsh to Night of Fire – yet another Rosso book that is just good enough to make you wish it was better.
I grade tough on Rosso because I can see an A grade book inside every book he writes but it doesn't quite come out. Step up, Nico; stop teasing me with awesome story concepts and then failing to deliver! I am counting on you!
Night of Fire is the second book in the Ether Chronicles series that Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso are writing together (they alternate books, each a stand-alone in a shared universe series). Tom Knox is a soldier on leave from the wars who is returning home in search of “Chicken. Berry pie. A shade tree…”.
Three years ago, he left his sweetheart, Rosa Campos, behind. Now, she is the sheriff of Thornville and her town faces obliteration by an evil mining company. The soldier and the sheriff team up to save the town and to rekindle the romance that Tom destroyed in the past.
My first reaction was that this was a strong enough Western that the steampunk elements were unnecessary. I know I spent my review of Kilts and Kraken screaming “Clockwork dog!” but I'm going to start being a little bit picky here – if you want to make something steampunk (or any other kind of specialized genre or cross-over) there has to be a point to it. How does turning a western into a steampunk western enhance the story?
As it turns out, steampunk enhances this story by allowing a battle between (1) our heroes on a flying mechanical horse (2) a mechanized giant mining machine of doom, and (3) some guys with jet packs. So, while I still think this story would have been just fine as a standard Western, I'm certainly not complaining about all that mayhem during the climax. Presumably the steampunk element is more important to the series as a whole, which I understand spans the globe.
I liked the characters in Night of Fire and I thought Rosso did a particularly good job with Tom, showing how the war changed him. The atmosphere was also well done. I've grown up around a lot of ex-mining towns in California and the feeling of the mountains and the forest was just right. The language in general is quite lovely. The action scenes start off a bit clunky but by the end of the books they literally and figuratively take off, and Rosso is good at showing how Rosa and Tom have to become a new couple, not just start up where they left off – not just because of the bad feelings left by their break-up, but also because they have both become new people in the three years they were apart. Tom saves Rosa far too often for my feminist taste but he always does it in plausible ways. He, for instance, is the one with the flying horse so it make sense that if someone has to swoop out of the air it will be Tom. Tom always has faith in Rosa's capabilities and she is a fine kick-ass character in her own right.
The biggest problem with Night of Fire is that there is a ton of repetition. Yes, I get it, Tom ran out on Rose, she is really pissed, he never forgot her, being near her is a kind of torment, she still thinks he's hot – you don't have to tell me once per page. It's even worse because the characters all talk and think in that laconic way that we're conditioned to believe all cowboys use, so there's a lot of short sentences and sentence fragments that would sound good on screen but drag the pace of the written page to a crawl. We get lines like, “But she wasn't his sweetheart anymore. A stolen horse and a moonless ride out of town had made sure of that”. That's an excellent line in and of itself. It follows a lovely paragraph about how much Tom used to like to look at Rose, and it conveys a lot of history in a very few words. But we get a variation on that line over and over again. I get it, move on!
Re: the Cover: Oh, Dear God, just look away. I can see what they're going for there – they've got a cowboy hat to match the Western theme, and the gears to convey a steampunk element, and the metal on his shoulder is in the right place (bar the truly horrifying photoshop fail), but let me assure you that at no time does a mysteriously hairless Tom wear nothing but a hat and almost invisible pants and gaze into the corner. Is he trying to look seductive? He looks like he's trying to remember where he left his keys. I try not to critique covers because they often don't reflect the quality of the book but I hate this cover so very much that I must scorn it publically. And now I have, so my work here is done.