Harry Takes Off: Astounding Stories of Adventure (Iron Pegasus Book 1) Kindle Edition
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Harry Takes Off is a light homage to such stories, but this novella gives the yarn a steam-punk twist, and hands the action off to the distaff side. Turnbull's universe posits a steam-driven technology that includes anti-gravity to loft riveted-iron steam-powered aircraft into the skies. Given anti-gravity, aircraft technologies include helium-buoyed armored Zeppelins and Harry's own ornithopter with its flapping wings, as well as more "conventional" craft.
I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction of the two heroines, Harriet (the eponymous Harry of the title) and her adopted sister, Khuwelsa, both with each other and with the denizens of steam-punk-Edwardian East Africa (British- and German-dominated Zanzibar and Kenya). Because Khuwelsa is black, and both are female, we see the fun that ensues as the girls are repeatedly underestimated by the German Army. I especially liked the way Khuwelsa as the engineer for their 'thopter is essential to their eventual triumph—not because she is black or female, but because of her demonstrated engineering skill!
The girl fliers happen to observe the German Army in Kenya preparing an invasion, and set out to warn their father who is stationed in Kenya. They must survive being driven to ground by German aircraft, captured by the Germans, and separated from each other by the prejudice of their captors. Even when they finally manage to warn the British Army in Zanzibar, they are ignored because they are female, and have to take matters into their own hands.
The ending of the tale is appropriately triumphant—in a word, ripping! I enjoyed the novella so much, I immediately purchased the Kindle versions of Turnbull's Maliha Anderson mysteries, set in the same steam-punk universe.
Brava, Harriet and Khuwelsa! And bravo, Steve Turnbull!
Note: The BBC series "Ripping Yarns" was a spoof of the entire genre, written by Monty Python alums Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, with Palin as the lead character in a new yarn each week. With titles like "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" and "Across the Andes by Frog", Ripping Yarns captured the essence of such stories, but exaggerated the characteristics of the genre, with "screamingly funny" results.
I loved Turnbull's vision of plucky heroines against the rise of Imperial Germany played out in the skies of East Africa.
Reading a book that positions itself as steampunk is the triumph of hope over experience for me. This is because, almost without exception, the execution fails to measure up to the ideas. Fails by a wide margin. The average steampunk book is poorly written, both in terms of story and in terms of basic competence with the elements of prose.
This book is that rare exception.
Firstly, Turnbull doesn't flood us with absurd gadgetry. His sole technological difference is a form of antigravity, which I think is a wise approach. We don't have steam this and brass that and clockwork the other thing, with none of them making any kind of technological or sociological sense. We have steam-powered heavier-than-air flight, and airships that can carry much greater payloads. Otherwise, it's a straight historical adventure.
Secondly, he knows how to write a pulp story. It's exciting, it occasionally stretches belief, but I forgive it because it reminds me of the thrilling adventure stories of my childhood. There aren't the problems with pacing, massive plot holes, and excessive description that so often plague the genre.
Thirdly, his characters aren't idiots. Because this is a fast-moving, action-packed, plot-driven pulp story, they don't achieve tremendous depth, perhaps, but they're sensible, pragmatic, capable, and don't get themselves into trouble by doing things that are obviously thickheaded. Nor do they need to be rescued by men, like so many steampunk heroines. Instead, they bravely escape from the Germans by themselves and take a warning to the British government, which is, of course, ignored because they are only teenage girls (and one is African). Then they bravely escape again (I did find the fact that the Sultan of Zanzibar lets the engineer sister fix, indeed improve, their aircraft while holding them captive suspiciously plot-convenient).
Fourth, he only uses vocabulary that he actually understands. This is one of the worst things about steampunk for me: the authors try to write "Victorian" and end up making a horrible hash of it, misusing words left and right and revealing their ignorance of history, language and culture. Turnbull dodges this bullet, or rather artillery shell.
I give this book my rare "well-edited" tag, which I don't think has ever been earned by a steampunk book before (several of them have got the "seriously-needs-editing" tag, though). In part, this is, of course, because Turnbull doesn't make a lot of mistakes to begin with. Quality begins with the author, and if the author makes hundreds of errors, there will be tens of errors even after a very good editor has gone over it.
A very good editor (whom I know) has gone over this, and there are very few issues left, all minor. The copy that I read came bundled with another book of Turnbull's, edited by a different person, which revealed that he has a habit of comma-splicing. There was no sign of this issue in Harry Takes Off.
Overall, a fine piece of adventure fiction, which didn't distract me from the plot by dropping constant clangers like so much steampunk does.
This usually isn't my favorite genre but maybe it should be!!!