Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe is an inventive sci fi/steampunk adventure featuring a lovable airship rogue trying to make a living on the fringes, his stalwart first mate, and a Watch Captain too upstanding to be posted to a outpost settlement. Add in a ‘doppel’ who can change faces at will, and grifter will get scammed, watch captain betrayed, and several big explosions happen in between.
Story: Detan Honding has a problem: the flotation balloons of his ship are damaged, he’s stuck in a poor mining colony on the back end of the planet, and he’s about to get a surprising offer he can’t refuse from an otherwise stalwart Watch Captain Ripka. The con? Steal the flagship from a very ruthless commodore with a history of Bloodthirsty and Machiavellian scheming. Detan soon finds himself at the mercy of three women: the frustrated Watch Captain, mercurial doppler, and powerful Commodore. But Detan has a few tricks up his sleeve that will surprise everyone.
The worldbuilding is quite unique and superb here. A resource, selenium, that can float air ships but also be manipulated by ‘sel sensitives’ to various effects (including changing faces). Mining of Sel is all important and anyone sensitive to selenium ends up in the mines doing various chores of moving the resource to be packaged and shipped. But there are Sel deviants – those that are found such as doppels are fated to be human experiments by imperial ‘researches’. Former Sel Sensitive Detan Honding knows a thing or two about the ‘white coats’ who performed on him before he escaped.
Into this world are several distinct characters. Detan Honding is the “Han Solo”/”Captain Mal” archetype of lovable rogue constantly getting in and out of scrapes. He has a smooth tongue – or so he thinks – but more often than not drives everyone else around him to frustration. It’s all bravado but it works for him (most of the time). His second mate is quiet and efficient – born on the streets and a foil to extract Honding when he gets in too deep. Contrasting Honding’s POV is that of Ripka, a Watch Captain who just wants peace in her small colony and who isn’t either a puppet of the Imperials or a political player. Her grounded justice is contrasted with Commodore Thratia – a woman who will do whatever it takes to reach her goals, even if that includes selling out most of the town that Ripka watches over.
The first part of the book does go a bit slow as petty swindles provide the resources to set up the big heist of Thratia’s ship. The chaos element of the doppel, who takes identities frequently and to the detriment of the main characters, keeps the reader guessing as to where the plot will go. But once the main heist kicks in, reversals in fortune happen often, as do the surprises.
I was greatly reminded of Firefly tv series elements in this story. Pseudo Western town, an honest lawman, and a lot of imagination making for a unique story. The key to liking the story is the ‘smooth tongued scamp’ aspect of Honding’s grandiose dialogues. Reviewed from an advance reader copy received from the publisher.