I'm a big fan of Devon Monk's Allie Beckstrom series, so was greatly surprised when I saw that she had started a new one, a steampunk magical-type series full of gears, witches, and totally evil bad guys. The first book is called Dead Iron, and while it's not bad, it's not Monk's best work.
Cedar Hunt is a man with a problem. Cursed with lycanthropy, he has to chain himself into his house three nights every month to prevent his bloodlust from affecting the good people of Hallelujah, Oregon. He's a bounty hunter, making his way from the East and running from the fact that he's responsible for his brother's death - until a trio of eccentric miners in town offer him the possibility that his brother may still be alive. This chance will force him to cross the path of Shard Lefel, a railroad tycoon who is threatening to bring civilization to Hallelujah. He also plans on using the railroad and what he's found in Hallelujah to allow him to get back home, as he is a banished member of the Strange, something he has to do before his time on this Earth is ended permanently.
Dead Iron almost feels like the premiere episode of an ongoing television series, bringing together the disparate characters who are going to be part of the "team" for the continuing adventures. The setup is intriguing. This is a world where magic is real, and quite prevalent, where the bonds and promises spoken in a wedding ceremony can be so strong that it prevents a man's death until his wife is truly out of danger, where werewolves can be a problem, too - and where mechanical monstrosities vie with gadgets that help in everyday life. It's steampunk meets urban fantasy and a great concept.
Monk's strength has always been her characterization skills, but sadly they aren't as prominent in this novel. Cedar and the witch Mae are the most three-dimensional characters, and even they don't quite reach that level. Cedar is a man driven by his need to atone for what happened to his brother. We learn that he was a family man before everything fell apart. We get little tidbits of Mae's past as well, and we also see her magical abilities. Lefel, unfortunately, is much too "evil for evil's sake" for my liking, despite the fact that we know it stems from his ambition to return to his realm and immortality before he has to die on Earth.
Another problem with Dead Iron is that the sexual tension between Mae and Cedar is really uncomfortable to read about, given the circumstances. Monk's books fall into that "sexy fantasy" genre where two hot main characters burn up the pages (explicit sex is optional, and Monk generally doesn't indulge), and it seems clear that the series will eventually have some of that, too. In this book, it just comes across as unnatural and kind of gross.
That said, Monk's world-building is top-notch here, even more so than in the Allie Beckstrom novels, where she just gave modern-day Portland a magical twist. This time, she creates an Old West setting with "guns, gears, and grit" (to quote the back cover) with some magic along the way. The world she presents to the reader is quite interesting, especially figuring out how it all relates to each other. The combination of magic and machinery is delicious at times; I look forward to finding out more about how the Strange works and whether there are any other fantastical creatures hovering in the background. We have werewolves; are there vampires, too? Maybe one of the future villains will create a mechanical vampire bat.
The possibilities are endless, and Monk does a fabulous job giving us a peek into this world, enticing us to want to continue and find out more.
Dead Iron as a story is rather simple and straightforward, though Monk tells it well. As the setup to a series, it fulfills its functions. I do hope future books flesh out the characters more, though. I'd like to know more about them than I find out here.
This is a decent start.