Steel and song was an interesting read with an intriguing pre-World War 1 alternate universe Russia combined with Sami cultural references. All within a world built on magic. However, inconsistencies in story, worldbuilding, and characters did detract from the experience for me.
Story: The Novgorod (read: Czarist Russia) have systematically enslaved the Sami people of the far North. After one hundred years of persecution, they are forced into the war with the Franks (read: France) as disposable canon fodder. Tova is a Sami with power of the wind – an airwitch. She is conscripted against her will to pilot the warship of a Cossack noble. It’s a dangerous position that kills quickly either through Frank gunfire or depletion of life force through using too much Magic. Both the Cossack and Tova will become embroiled in a revolution that might just kill them before the Franks can.
Bolton has taken great pains to set up the world and characters. We’re given a lot of info dumps through conversations as Tova joins the army from her small village and is updated by the soldiers on what is happening beyond that village. Information about the magic system, the pseudo-Russian culture, and the war itself are well explained. As well, the cultural references for the Sami culture are fascinating – from joiking (epic songs) to reindeer idols.
I liked the characters, which is good considering we are given two points of view. The Cossack noble, Piers Dashkov, is suitable haunted and Tova Vanaskaya is both strong yet vulnerable. A cast of side characters fill out the story, though they do serve more as a path to info dump rather than interact with Tova or Piers.
The thing that bothered me about consistency had a lot to do with Tova being both very weak and very strong at the same time. I didn’t get a good feel for her character and a lot of her actions fall too often into the ‘too stupid to survive’ category. She has no sense of fear or respect for her situation – which in turn means we don’t either. As well, problems with the worldbuilding (e.g., joiking (singing) is illegal and instant death but she does it throughout most of the book without fear) became frustrating. I would expect, for example, something as important to the Sami as joiking to be done in secret; Tova does it outloud every 5 pages regardless. I couldn’t help but feel she’d be a tombstone very fast if the worldbuilding was more logical and we actually were shown what we are told over and over.
Finally, the steampunk here is a bit off to me. I respect a unique view but steampunk to me will always be brass and copper, not steel (which starts to head into dieselpunk territory). As well, there is no steam here – it’s all magic. So we lost all that technological wonder and interest of the genre. This is definitely a lot more WW1 alternate universe rather than steampunk. Which is fine – but I do love my Victorian steampunk.
In all, I would rate this 3.5 stars and hope the next book is more consistent. There is a lot of promise in Ani Bolton’s first book and I do look forward to the second in the series. Note: this is a novella of around 200 pages, not a full novel.
Reviewed from an ARC.