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The Four Kingdoms are a group of four dwarven nations, located on an island to the east of the Steamlands, which I have previously mapped. Being a dwarven holding, they are not well understood by the humans of the other lands, but more is understood of the history and geography of the Four Kingdoms than, for example, the homes of the dwarves of the Shadowlands in the far north, because the Four Kingdoms were once a human land. Unlike other dwarven kingdoms, it is sometimes possible to find maps or even histories in the great libraries of the Steamlands  – though even then the history of the ancient humans who lost this land to the dwarves is not well understood. The presence of a network of ancient and sinister shrines across the surface of the Four Kingdoms suggests, however, that the ancient human residents were worshippers of chaos, and this was their undoing.

In addition to the strange historical accident by which their kingdom was revealed to them, the dwarves of the Four Kingdoms have another unusual trait: they are masters of both the earth and the heavens. They build their cities beneath the mountains, just as do dwarves of every land, but above the ruins of the old human settlements they have constructed mighty towers, from which they send forth airships of astounding size and beauty, to ply the trade routes of the nearby islands, and to defend their kingdom against incursion. These airships are filled with helium, which the dwarves of the Four Kingdoms mine deep beneath the earth using secrets only they know. The airships are their prize possession, and have given the Four Kingdoms great wealth and power. Many is the foolish human lord who has staked their future popularity on a campaign to reclaim the lost human birthright of the Four Kingdoms, only to be brought to ruin by the massed cannon and bombs of the dwarves’ inassailable airships; and no sight is more feared on the battlefields of the Steamlands than a mercenary dwarven aerostat as it hoves into view above the battlefield, its bomb bays open and ready to rain fire on the hapless footsoldiers below.

Rumours abound regarding the lost human settlements of the Four Kingdoms. Some say that the dwarves destroyed the humans utterly and usurped their claim to the land; others say that even to this day the descendants of its original inhabitants are enslaved to the will of the dwarves, and toil in their fields while the dwarves live lives of luxury and corruption in their gilded halls. Some scholars note the network of sinister and ruined shrines above ground, and observe that sometimes in their deep delvings the dwarves waken dark powers from their slumber. These scholars suggest that the humans of the Four Kingdoms worshipped chaos, and their evil religion was their undoing. Dwarves are renowned for their hatred of chaos, and whether the dwarves destroyed these humans out of duty, or arrived too late to save them from their own doom, or simply inherited a devastated and empty land, no one knows. To learn the truth of this secret past would require the unravelling of secrets long buried deep in dwarven halls, and it is clear the dwarves do not care to reveal what – if anything – they know of the land’s ancient secrets. So, if humans are to learn of the folly – and the doom – of their ancient brethren on this island, it will fall to a team of dedicated adventurers to pierce to the heart of the dwarven strongholds, there to learn the truth of the dark powers that stalk the island and its subterranean depths …

fn1: the picture is from this NZ site on all things dwarven (oddly appropriate, given the season!)

行ってきます!

This is my first attempt at mapping the Steamlands, the kingdom in which I am now running WFRP 3 adventures. The map was created in Hexographer (the free version) because I’m a terrible artist, designer or drawer. The geography of this kingdom is based loosely on Kyushu, Southern Japan, taking the names and some of the features of parts of Japan for inspiration. I’ve also chucked in a bit of Germany for good measure (the World Forest on the west coast, and the river system lined with towers, is essentially a geographical feature copied from the Black Forest and the Rhine).

At the moment I have no ideas for this world except the names of towns (translated from the Japanese) and a couple of general features. Although the geography is modeled loosely on Kyushu and the city names a translation of Kyushu names, the vegetation and weather is roughly similar to south east Australia – so the World Forest, for example, is a vast wilderness of eucalyptus forest, and the flat areas can be imagined to be rolling pasture dotted with cows. I haven’t decided if it has marsupials (probably not) but it will have a bird that resembles a kookaburra, and the forest will preserve Australian features – quiet, pleasantly fragrant, dry and kind of spooky. Some particular features of the landscape (and the names they’re translated from) are given below.

  • The Spear Capes (Nagasaki): a land of inlets and bays, rich swamps and wild rivers, I imagine this is dotted with independent cities of pirates and traders, and is quite primitive and barbaric in many ways. I imagine the swamps will be mangroves, and crocodiles will be common. I also imagine that the inland areas will have plantain and sugar farms, and possibly large plantations owned by strongmen from the other kingdoms (particularly from Twinluck)
  • Twinluck (Fukuoka): Twinluck is the largest city in the Steamlands, and is connected by a railway line to the city of Store. I imagine Twinluck as a chaotic melting pot, with an ancient history and lots of steampunk technology. I also think that the current ruler has styled himself “The Emperor of Infinity” and is attempting to build a great empire, the Empire of the Manifold Path, which is slowly expanding East and Southwest (through the land that in real life is called Saga but in this map is simply farmland and forest that is open to exploitation by the most aggressive settlers). I also imagine that the people of the Manifold Empire (as it is often referred to) are of a different race to those in the Spear Capes, and there is much conflict on the edges of the Empire
  • Store (Kitakyushu/Kokura): I know nothing about Store except that it is at the other end of the railway line from Twinluck, and it constitutes the Easternmost boundary of the Manifold Empire. It is so-called because the coastline is riddled with old caves that connect into a deep dungeon, in which can be found lost artifacts and ancient technology – as well as ancient evils
  • Heavenbalm (Usa): Heavenbalm is the temple-fortress at the centre of a religious kingdom, about which I know nothing. I guess there is human sacrifice and witch burning, and possibly magic is forbidden.
  • Steamline Spa (Yufuin): This town is the centre of a network of hot springs and spas, scattered through the mountains in this area. This is the area where the campaign began
  • Separation City (Beppu): The adventurers are heading here as I make the map. I’m not sure why it’s called “Separation City” or what’s there, but I think it will be a smallish town with a large entertainment industry, and a large port for Eastward travel to the Four Kingdoms and the Summerlands (two other continents not shown on this map)
  • Greathalf (Oita): A large industrial and agricultural city, the last significant town before one heads down the wild east coast
  • The Beastlands (Kumamoto): Kumamoto means “origin of bears,” so for this area I figured it must be full of beastmen. These beastmen regularly spread to the east coast or northeast towards the civilized lands of Greathalf, and the line of towers has something to do with them. The southernmost island of the Beastlands is the Isle of Pan, and it may be the home of some kind of god of the beastmen, though no one has returned to tell the tale of its contents. This island corresponds with the province of Kagoshima (Island of Fauns), and the islands which inspired the mythical forest of Princess Mononoke, which seems apt
  • The World Forest: the home of the elves, especially away from the coast, and continually being contested between elves, beastmen and humans

Besides these rough outlines, I have no other ideas for the world. I know there is another kingdom on the east coast, not yet described, which corresponds with Miyazaki, but I can’t think of a good translation of Miyazaki (“Palace” plus “Promontory” or “Peninsular”). Maybe the “Bay of Palaces”? Sounds rich and powerful! Or maybe it once was, and now is crumbling under the beastman threat.

Because there is a dwarf in the party I need to find a place to fit dwarves in all of this – they might, however, come from over the sea, in the Four Kingdoms.

The PCs are heading to Separation City to get a lawyer to sign a deed transferring property to them, so that they can take ownership of an onsen in the mountains. After that they have adventure options in Twinluck, and they can return and explore the land around their property, or they can head elsewhere to explore the Steamlands. At this stage it’s all pretty open, basically a sandbox to enable me to see how far I can push the WFRP 3 rules before I get bored of them and/or they break. Shall I have a beastman empire? What is buried beneath Store? And does the Emperor of Infinity know something we don’t? Only time will tell…

Today I ran a follow-up session of Warhammer 3 (WFRP 3) based in the world where I previously ran a Pathfinder Onsen Adventure. In the first session the players safely completed the first adventure, and now they are ready to explore their world and do a bit of adventuring. I’m running this as a kind of sandbox in a steam-powered world of below-Victorian-level tech, set in a world that corresponds geographically with Kyushu, Japan but is not intended to be anything except a cultural mish-mash. The characters in this session were an elven scout, a human wizard (of the jade order) and a human roadwarden. Our group changes a little from fortnight to fortnight, so the group won’t be constant.

Just as in the Pathfinder version, at the end of the first adventure the PCs got a document granting them ownership of a small onsen resort near the town of Steamline Spa. They need to head down to the coast, to Separation City, to find a lawyer who can ratify their ownership of the onsen. The PCs planned to do this in this adventure, but they ran into a small hitch…

The Disgruntled Guards

The PCs arrived at the onsen resort as bodyguards to a rich old man who needed healing, but the resort itself actually had some guards already. After these guards found out that the PCs had taken ownership of the onsen resort they got a little uppity, and all five of them visited the PCs’ office to demand a renegotiation of the situation: specifically, that the PCs relinquish the deed of ownership to the guards and leave immediately. The guards consisted of:

  • Carsk: a massive, hulking barbarian-type from an undisclosed region, kind of swarthy with a face so heavily scarred that forming complex sentences is a challenge
  • The Spitting Woman: one of those lightly-armed cut-and-run types, obviously the brains of the group, this woman is probably from the far South and speaks a language so heavily punctuated by spitting and hacking sounds that the PCs never really learned her name, and just refer to her as “the spitting woman.”
  • The Triplets: A trio of fighters, inseparable, probably born at the same time, of indeterminate gender, who may not speak common and come from some barbaric place in the far west, beyond the World Forest.

The Roadwarden, Chrestia, decided to use her leadership skills to try and convince the mob that instead of taking over the shop they should work as the PCs loyal servants. The PCs had been digging through documents and so discovered some evidence that Carsk was deep in debt to some gambling parlours in Steamline Spa, and they offered to help him work out his debts if he stayed loyal. However, none of these incentives worked, and after a couple of minutes of debate things turned sour. Combat ensued, and would have gone very badly if Chrestia hadn’t had the good idea of upturning their huge mahogany desk for cover. This gave them a small defensive bonus in the first round – not enough to stop the scout copping a third critical hit on top of the two he already had – but things were clearly looking dire. In fact the scout at this point was only alive because he had previously got healing sufficient to ignore one critical hit for a day – one more critical hit and he was dead, and if he didn’t get some decent healing in 24 hours he would die.

Fortunately the room backed onto a verandah and then a garden, and so the PCs decided to make a run for it into the garden. The garden was surrounded by a wall with a gate, and they figured if they could make it to the gate one of them could hold the gate against the whole horde. The upturned desk gave them the chance, so they ran for it and made it to the gate. Here, Chrestia blocked the gate while the wizard fired magic darts over her shoulders and the scout dropped into the shadows. He used his ambush skills to deal with the triplets when they tried climbing over the wall, and Chrestia dealt with the spitting woman, who was first to the gate. Carsk, seeing no way through the gate, tried to climb the wall. The scout used a trick shot that enables him to shoot round corners, but it didn’t work; however, after Chrestia killed the Spitting Woman, the wizard was able to cast an entangle spell on Carsk as he was halfway up the wall.

This had an unfortunate effect. The garden was already full of topiary that had been carved into sexually suggestive shapes, and Carsk was climbing the wall next to a topiary figure of a rabbit pleasuring herself on a rhinoceros’s horn. This topiary expanded to engulf Carsk, so that he was pinned to the wall with vines twined around his sweetmeats and his greatsword embedded in a sensitive part of the rhinoceros. Carsk was probably too tough for the PCs to kill in an open fight, but finding himself compromised by a rhinoceros-shaped shrub, and with vines slowly crawling around his balls, he changed his tune. He blamed the whole thing on the Spitting Woman, and agreed to work for the PCs as a loyal and faithful companion.

The gnome wagons and the Beastmen

The following day the PCs explored the valley near their onsen, finding the caravans that belonged to the gnome crime-boss they killed in the previous session. These caravans are luridly painted with famous stories in the history of the gnome race: in this case, scenes from the story of Grimsby’s contest with Casanova, in which Grimsby attempts to deflower every virgin Casanova is pursuing before Casanova can get to her. This story is known to have ended badly for everyone involved except Casanova, and the wagon decorations were really not suitable for display in a civilized city, but the wagons were pulled by wargoats and the PCs figured they could repaint them or sell them, so they took them back to their onsen. They then realized that the scout was in dire need of healing, and since they had to travel to Separation City anyway they headed off for Steamline Spa. A night at the healer’s later, and the scout was good as new. With a new day dawning, they headed to Separation City …

Unfortunately, they were ambushed by Beastmen on the way. Four ungors and a wargor charged from the bushes to attack them as they were heading through a forested valley, with almost hilarious consequences. The wizard cast another entanglement spell, trapping the ungors in the scrub, but the wargor – a great 12′ tall monster of a screaming bull-headed bastard – hit their wagon at a full run, and did some serious damage to the roadwarden, who was driving the wagon. Unfortunately, to do this the wargor had charged through the side of the wagon, and got his head stuck in the wagon wall, and the roadwarden got a free hit on the beast’s head[1]. Having used her free attack, the roadwarden then pulled a classic stunt: she stabbed the arse of the wargoat dragging their wagon, forcing it into a blind run, and leapt out the back of the wagon. The wagon hurtled off down the road with the wargor still trapped by its head, desperately stumbling and struggling as it tried not to be trampled or run over and still with its head stuck in the side of the wagon. This left the PCs free, at least for a round or two, to deal with the entangled weaker beastmen. And this is where the session ended …

fn1: the card “Fearsome charge” includes an effect when you roll 2 banes, in which the target gets a free strike. I figured this was because the wargor got stuck in the wagon’s boards.

I GM’d Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition (WFRP3) on the weekend for a group of three players. It was my first time GMing in 18 months, the first time I have ever GM’d WFRP3 in English (up until now it has been Japanese). It was actually the first time I had GMd in English in 3 years, and because I was dropped into the role at the last minute I rehashed a session I’d previously run for Pathfinder, Strange Doings in the Steam Mountains (also last run in Japanese). A few notes about the session below, but first I thought I’d mention a problem I ran into with WFRP3’s system of rechargeable action cards, which is kind of obvious once you run into it but which I hadn’t thought about ahead and which if unresolved threatens to completely undermine the atmosphere of Warhammer worlds.

How to handle rechargeable healing spells outside of combat?

One of the PCs in Saturday’s adventure was a wizard of the Jade order, a kind of druid-like magician. One of his spells, The Gift of Life, is a healing spell that can be used in combat to heal (roughly) up to 4 wounds and (possibly) one critical wound, if successful. In combat it is quite balanced: it requires enough power to require a wizard to be at equilibrium to use it, it has a recharge value of 4 so can effectively only be used every 3 rounds, and its difficulty increases rapidly if one is engaged with a melee opponent or critically wounded. In the weekend’s first battle the main beneficiary of this was the wizard himself, who hid behind a secret door to heal himself, stepped out to fight, got wounded again, and ducked back behind the door to heal again. When the battle finished, he was still on half hit points and thus one hit away from death.

The problem arose after the combat ended, when the wizard was then able to heal himself, wait for the recharge, cast again, and keep going until himself and the rest of the party were fully healed. There is no daily limit on spell-casting, so there is no reason for him not to do this. Worse still, the spell offers the chance to heal critical wounds – the essential basis of WFRP3’s inbuilt deadliness – so if used continuously out of combat it essentially offers the party a way to regenerate completely after every encounter. Without it, WFRP3 is a very dangerous setting – without any healing, the wizard would have died in this battle, and the entire party would have been in dire straits after the second battle, when they went up against two steam Mephits. So the spell itself is quite a useful spell for ameliorating an otherwise extremely dangerous system. But how to prevent the recharge function from largely eliminating the threat in WFRP3? On Saturday night I allowed the wizard to fully heal himself and cast the spell once on every wounded party member, but obviously this is an arbitrary system, so I need to find a way to limit the spell and to put general limits on recharge effects outside of combat encounters.

I think there are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Implied daily limits: one option is to only allow any spell to be used once in between encounters. If one assumes about three encounters in a day and a spell being used at most twice per encounter, this gives an implied daily spell use limit of about nine times per day, without actually stating a limit. This is completely arbitrary – there’s no reason why a wizard should be able to cast a spell three times in the span of a combat but only once in the following three hours – but it solves the problem, and not just for healing spells
  • Actual daily limits: Another option – which could be good for limiting wizard spell use anyway – would be to put actual daily limits on how much a spell can be used. One way to do this would be to say each spell can only be used a number of times equal to the wizard’s willpower plus their rank, minus the spell’s recharge time. Gift of Life, with a recharge of four, would thus only be usable twice a day by the party’s wizard in this adventure. Magic dart – with a recharge of 0 – would be usable six times a day, which is a handy limit considering that Magic Dart is a nasty spell. This would also give more reason for a wizard to choose non-spell action cards, especially support cards which can sometimes function similarly to spells but using skills. The same tokens used to track recharges could easily be adapted to tracking the number of times a spell has been used. I think this goes against the feeling of WFRP3, however
  • Wound-specific limits: The option I think I’m going to settle on is to use wound-specific limits. That is, any one PC can only successfully cast a heal spell on any one set of wounds once. The recipient of the healing must then go out and get wounded again before they can enjoy the same person’s healing again. I think I will extend this to healing draughts as well, and will make it caster-, rather than spell-specific. In this case, the wizard can cast Gift of Life on a party member (sucessfully) out of combat once; the result of this roll represents the limit of the caster’s ability to tend to the given injuries. Then, when the healed PC goes back into combat and incurs another set of wounds, the caster can heal them again with Gift of Life or a different spell. The PC can separately consume their own healing draught (once), and other spell casters can try to heal that PC, plus any PC with first aid training can also attempt to attend to the injured PC’s wounds – but only once each. This approach to healing is consistent with the rules for the First Aid skill, which can only be applied once by each PC on each PC. It doesn’t limit the number of times a day the spell can be used through magical theory, but through the limitations of the particular injuries each recipient of the spell has suffered. I think this is more consistent with the feeling of WFRP3 rules, and, given that healing spells are quite weak, doesn’t prevent them being used freely in combat (provided the recipient is receiving fresh wounds).

Any of these solutions will work for healing spells, but the last solution may prove insufficient if the problem arises in other types of spell (item identification, teleportation, that sort of thing). I think this is a weakness of the rechargeable-action-card system, but it’s better to house rule it away than to ditch the system, because rechargeable action cards are a lot of fun in combat.

Another minor problem of WFRP3

It may be in the GM’s Toolkit (which I don’t own) but it seems to me that the designers of WFRP3 have put a lot of thought into the rules and how to work them, but haven’t put much thought into how to put all of it together when preparing adventures. With all the actions spread over cards in multiple packs, it’s really hard to work out how to organize e.g. a set of monster statistics for three separate encounters and how to keep track of monster actions for groups of monsters. If I have three separate types of monster in one encounter I have to gather together lots of cards from different locations and then keep them together with clips or folders or bags or something, then somehow return them to their original location when I’m done. I guess there are specialized card holders for this sort of thing, but in preparing for this adventure I had to make my own monsters (the gnome thieves) and find a way to lay them out together and manage them. I don’t feel that this has been settled in the rulesets I have – tips and advice would be appreciated! Also juggling monsters’ special actions in combat requires a lot of experience and attention, since you’re potentially managing several different monsters of several different types all with their own unique (and repeated) action cards. Also basic cards – block, parry and dodge – aren’t available in monster statblocks, so you have to track them in your head. Stat blocks need to be designed in a way that is as practical as the character sheet, and I don’t think they are.

Adventuring in the steam mountains

The adventure itself was fun and straightforward, getting halfway through before our 3 hour room slot was up. My aim is to use this adventure as an intro to a possible sandbox campaign in a small part of a larger world. I vaguely envisaged this world being Japanese-ish (continuing the onsen theme) but without much emphasis on any particular culture to start with, and I thought I’d let the players’ actions and decisions guide the introduction to the world. I also didn’t envisage it being in the Warhammer milieu per se (though undoubtedly given my inclinations, there’ll be a healthy dose of satanism, steampunk and dark powers).

The PCs were:

  • A Dwarven Troll-Slayer: Dwarves, it appears, are black-skinned and clean-shaven, though the Troll-slayer class retains its outcast status from Warhammer
  • An Elven Scout: Elves, it appears, are very tall (>2m), extremely skinny, and generally consistent with their European heritage
  • A Human Wizard: the human was skinny, pale, always cold, with spikey hair in a faint blue tone. So it appears that the default humans of the area are anime-standard

I haven’t decided yet whether the elf or the dwarf were travellers from far away, or if the steam mountains are on the border of three regions. I am tending towards the latter – borders mean lawless areas and strife after all. The onsen resort itself was an Australian-style rural estate, suggesting 18th-century level of building technology, so I’m wondering if the setting will be an 18th-century style semi-arid location, similar to that of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. Steam trains are an excellent addition to any setting, so it could be a good plan to set it in or on the cusp of the steam era.

Finally, it appears that gnomes are a bunch of greasy, tattooed criminal bastards, good at technology but sewer-mouthed and immoral. Kind of like East London gangsters, but shorter (if that’s possible). But that could just be because the only gnomes anyone will ever meet are a criminal gang from a single city, so it could be just an unfortunate stereotype – I haven’t decided on that yet.

I’m not sure, in any case, if I’ll get a chance to continue this adventure into a campaign, but if I do let’s see if I can have an orientalist outback pre-Victorian steampunk adventure with racially deterministic gnomes, and WFRP 3 rules. Sounds like fun!

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is the first in a series of young adult steampunk novels, set in a very close parallel history of Edwardian Europe. They’re light-hearted, fast-paced and fun, and they have some nice new ideas for combining classic steam-tech with biotechnology. The basic setting is Austria and London on the eve of the first world war, with Europe locked into the exact same ludicrous stand-off as actually happened. The Austrian Empire – “clankers” in the common British parlance – bases its technology on steam power and heavy industry, while its main opponents, the British “Darwinists” have followed the old man’s lead into an industrial milieu based on bioengineering. Most of the action in the story revolves around two symbols of these two types of technology: an Austrian walker, very similar in essence to an ST Walker from Star Wars; and the British airship Leviathan, which is essentially a hydrogen blimp bioengineered from a massive whale. The technology on both sides is ludicrous and well beyond what one would imagine were possible in the time period, but it’s classic steam-based SF.

Each technological setting also comes with a character: the Austrian Alek, bastard teenage son of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who has to flee his home after the assassination of his family; and Deryn Sharp, a poor Scottish girl who has come to London with the crazy idea of disguising herself as a boy and entering the British Royal Air Force. Through a series of improbable accidents she finds herself onboard the Leviathan over Austria at the same time as Alek is fleeing across Europe, and so they end up meeting by chance. They then have to join forces to escape the Austrians chasing Alek, and thus the two of them are introduced into the scheming and plotting of European politics as the great powers plunge headlong into war. The first book ends at the point where we discover what they’ve become embroiled in; presumably we’ll explore more in later books.

This is a young adult novel, so it has some characteristics that I know many adult readers hate: hastily-sketched characters based on archetypes, simple and fast-flowing narrative style, sometimes awkward explanations of background and setting, and the frustrating phenomenon of children beating adults at their own game. But the fast-paced expositions and quick descriptions are a pleasant change from the bulky, unwieldy style of some modern SF and fantasy, and it’s nice to read a story with background nuance presented quickly and easily. The novel lacks the deep, thoughtful emotional engagement that characterizes the best young adult fiction (like, say, the works of Robert Westall or Maurice Gee) and it doesn’t have any of the coming-of-age intensity of much of the genre. I really like those aspects of good young adult fiction, and so in that sense this book is a little lightweight at times. But who cares? It’s fun, it has a cool giant floating whale armed with flechette bats (which have a cool name but are actually a bit of a stupid idea), and it has an alpine AT-AT chase between. What’s not to like? Also, I’m sensing strong hints of a dragon being involved somewhere in all this, and there’s definitely a kraken. The characters are a little shallow and stereotypical but engaging enough, and although both are a little super-human they are not insufferable prats such as one sometimes stumbles across in young adult fiction.

If you like steampunk and want to see such a setting leavened with carefully-imagined biotech, in a slightly later era than we usually associate with the genre, then this is a good book to pick up. It’s easy to read, fast-paced, and keeps the new ideas coming along at just the right pace to keep you interested. It also promises more depth – both emotional and political – in subsequent volumes. If you aren’t into young adult fiction, or like your stories slow-paced and thoughtful in the style of a classic fantasy trilogy, then you probably had best leave this one be. Overall, it’s a good effort and I’ll be persisting with the series.

I just received an email from a friend living in the UK, and in the email was this brief review of a night out in London:

I went to something the other day which made me think of you – a steampunk night.  It was full of people with elaborate Victoriana/goth/cyber-type outfits.  Among other things there was a grindcore band who did a song about an otherwise delightful family trip to the seaside (Margate, to be precise) being ruined by the appearance of mythical being Cthulhu rising up from the sea and sexually abusing grandma.  The phrase “tentacle rape” featured a number of times.

Steampunk-burlesque-grindcore-lovecraft. Has civilization finally reached its nadir?

This is another Stephen Hunt novel, set in the same world and with the same characters as the previous two I have read, The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. While the last two were definitely steampunk-fantasy, this one has crossed the line to science-fantasy, with a heavy dose of space opera and time travel to leaven the mix. I really like the world Hunt has created, and I think it provides interesting insights into the kind of post-scarcity fantasy that has been under discussion here recently. The world of these books includes clockwork-run computers and steam “transaction engines,” as well as sentient “steam men” who are basically steam-driven robots; this is a kind of steam-driven cyberpunk, with a heavy element of magic hanging it altogether. It also has a basis in real world politics, with the kingdom of Jackals clearly modeled on an atheist, post-revolutionary Victorian steampunk Britain; while Quatershift is clearly post-revolutionary France, where the revolution turned horribly communist but revolutionary Britain remained free-market capitalist. These models for a fantasy world based in an alternative-history earth with different geography and multiple races, as well as druidic magic, are really fun to wander through. The world of these tales has a high amount of magic that is put heavily to use in the service of the state: law and justice, war, public transport and scientific research are heavily driven by a combination of magic, old-fashioned science, steam technology and mysterious semi-magical materials science. The world is identifiably Victorian but also wealthy and capable of stupendous feats of technology and human achievement.

In this novel, the kingdom of Jackals is threatened by a powerful force using very high technology to an extremely destructive end. Although the technology resembles space opera-level power (space and time travel, nuclear power and weapons, and beam weapons and modern aerial machinery) much of its impetus is derived from harnessing the magic of the land. As a consequence it is understandable by and – more particularly – vulnerable to the ancient magical powers of the druids and fey creatures who live in Jackals. The heroes of previous stories have access to these powers and use them to combat the invasion, but they are clearly outclassed and need to use all their wits and power to face their foe.

Just as in previous books, the narrative is fast-paced and exciting, and some of the characters very enjoyable – I particularly became fond of Commodore Black in this story – and the plot is fairly robust, requiring leaps of faith and imagination but not particularly unbelievable or inconsistent. We learn more about the history of Jackals and Quatershift, as well as their present cultures and the magic and cosmology of the world. We also get a glimpse of what people without a proper knowledge of science can achieve if they have magic and an ingenious turn of mind.

Also like the previous stories, this one involves a certain element of deus ex machina that can be occasionally frustrating. It leads to main characters gettnig sudden mighty powers out of nowhere to rescue them from mounting adversary, and also causes the plot to hang on sudden leaps of intuition or new-found abilities that sometimes stretch credibility. But the story is pacey and you want to know both the secrets of the enemy and how they’re going to solve the problems facing them, so it’s not a deal-killer; but it is frustrating at times that the story can only proceed through main characters gaining the grace of ancient powers.

Despite these small complaints, it’s a fun book and the world it’s set in is an interesting and enjoyable addition to the fantasy genre. Also, revisiting the characters of Molly, Oliver, Coppertracks and Commodore Black is fun, as is the rumbunctious and chaotic politics of Jackals. Stephen Hunt’s writing is fast-paced and fun, and his books more than hold my interest. Read this novel if you want to see Steampunk taken in interesting and challenging new directions.