The Engineer’s Apprentice
by J.R. Martin
Genre: Science Fiction / Steampunk
Print Length: 288 pages
Reviewed by Erica Ball
Two inventors chase their fate in an alternate Victorian-era Texas where magic and technology are competing sources of power.
The Engineer’s Apprentice, the first in a planned series,is a novel set in a steam-powered alternate United States in the year 1893. The major difference in the history of this world is that the indigenous nations of the land have successfully erected a magical barrier to halt the western spread of European settlement. The protected lands beyond the barrier are home to a mixture of local nations and those that were displaced from what has become the new US, as well as the location of a large city of freed former slaves.
In this version of Texas, steam engineering is a major form of power in the state and underpins much of everyday life. As such, it is a lucrative profession and what Annie Sakdavong has chosen as her way to escape the future her parents are insistent upon as a wife and bodyguard to a merchant friend of her father’s.
As the only woman in her profession and the daughter of immigrants from Siam (now Thailand), her professional prospects are limited, but she finally finds a place as an apprentice to Issa Obasi, an accomplished engineer who immigrated to Texas as an adult to pursue his work. When their groundbreaking designs are stolen by a man with amazing powers and a mysterious benefactor, the new duo must track down the culprits and thwart their nefarious plans.
The reader learns everything from Annie’s point of view and so is privy to her reactions and feelings as the plot unfolds. She is a person who craves the freedom to choose her life path and is willing to literally fight for it if need be. She is somewhat quick to anger but also has a wry sense of humor. The life for which Annie was trained by her parents–as a wife and bodyguard combination–is an interesting concept, especially in a Victorian-era setting where women were typically taught to be passive. That she is an adept fighter choosing a life of technological achievement is also a compelling angle.
The plot moves along at a steady pace with a good balance of plot development and action. For steam-punk enthusiasts, there are plenty of retro-futuristic inventions, but there is also runic magic, a mystery requiring detective work, great fight sequences, and character development as Annie and Issa struggle with their pasts and ideals for the future.
Some readers may find the anachronisms of steampunk and the time period pushed a little too far, especially in the characters’ attitudes toward non-white communities, as well as some parts of automaton advancement. Others will take these in stride as necessary for the story being told. It would be a good fit for readers who enjoy visiting Victorian-inspired worlds, new takes on combinations of magic and steam power, and alternate US histories.
Overall, The Engineer’s Apprentice is a fun adventure in the old west, albeit one that is very different from the history books. With its combination of magic and technology, it looks at the dualities of two different sources of power and merges aspects of both fantasy and science fiction. But it is also about choices, self-determination, and having the strength of will to forge one’s own future.
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