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Book Review: Crosswind

An adventure yarn of another time and place, but grounded in familiar themes that take the reader on an an enjoyable ride through intrigue and aerial derring-do.

Brant Guillory, 18 December 2015

Crosswind is Steve Rzasa’s first book about the Sark brothers, Winchell and Copernicus.  Winchell is a journalist at a small newspaper, and his brother is a pilot, in the frontier town of Perch.

crosswindThe brothers stumble into an intrigue filled plot involving a larger town to their South known as Trestleway.
While Cope is the adventurous brother, alternating between stunt pilot antics in the air and ladies man smoothness on the ground, Winch is the conservative family man with a wife and children.  The brothers stumble upon the mystery when Cope flies his brother out to the wreck of another aircraft to take pictures and write a story for the newspaper. I rather unfriendly gentleman masquerading as a local rancher tries to steal a coded message that the brothers discover in the aircraft wreckage. It turns out this man is from Trestleway, and the coded message is a warning of an impending “invasion” that was being flown in by the nephew of Perch’s mayor-general.

The brothers are sent to investigate, and report back to home. Along the way, they discover a variety of intrigue, and a few interesting technical – and mystical – tricks up Trestleway’s sleeves.

The story is interesting, although in itself it is not particularly remarkable. It’s a fairly basic buddy-spy story with the usual undercover henchman, exotic help with questionable loyalties, and just-in-time getaways. Also present is the obligatory beautiful girl who distracts one of the heroes before an untimely disappearance. It is a tale well told, and Rzasa paces the action expertly.

Where the book really shines though, is in the background and setting in which it takes place. It is never specified as a different planet, but it is clearly earth-like.  That said, the fauna is not of the Earth we know.  There are no horses; people ride “branters” whose description is almost like a scaled tauntaun.  There are “mastodons” that are described as closer to horse-sized than mega-elephant-sized.  The dates in the book are all given as numbers counting from a long-distant Cataclysm.  And there are references to all manner of other lands, cities, and people.  There are three keys to this world, and the continent of Galderica, that really stand out.

The first is the Old West frontier feel of the setting. There is no large country or political entity to which these cities belong. They are all described as city-states with different political connections around them, but the space between them is imagined as sparsely-settled and fairly wild and independent. One can easily visualize large homesteads in Colorado or Montana in the late 1800s as stand-ins for the outlying ranches and farms described in this book.  In fact, it’ll come as no surprise to find out the author has lived in the “big” west for much of his life.  The in-town descriptions sounds very much like frontier towns in the Old West, with the local inn, the small newspaper, mining and ranching industries, and large town gatherings. Motorized vehicles are rare and animal based transportation is still quite common.

Contrasting with the Old West feel of the town, however, is the presence of a heavy aviation component. There are a variety of aircraft, including biplanes, large dirigibles, and cargo aircraft that played prominent roles throughout the book, not least because Cope is one of the best pilots around. A major source of the conflict between Perch and Trestleway is the former’s long commercial reach with aircraft  contrasted with the latter’s larger railroad-based cargo capacity.  Dogfighting scenes are detailed cinematic terms rather than technical ones, which keeps the reader engaged in the action.

The final unique characteristic of the book that sticks out is the religious undertone that occasionally bubbles up to drive key plot points.  In fact, the book is also cross-listed with religious fiction in Amazon’s site.  There are several competing belief systems, some of which will be instantly recognizable to readers because of their real-world counterparts.  Whereas religion acts as a more general belief system for most of our modern world, there are frequent manifestations of different pantheons in Crosswind.  Religious beliefs help drive Trestleway’s desire for conquest, and also act as a check against them.  There is no overt proselytizing present, and the various religions are largely presented in a neutral and balanced way, with one obvious plot-driven (and spoiler-laden) exception.

One final note on the writing style that is not specific to any of these three facets, but creates a sense of immersion for the reader. The author is very specific with names and titles for every piece of hardware in the story. Machine guns are not just generic machine guns, they are Keach Guns, or some other similar name. Aircraft are all given the model names, whether they are TAB Fighters or Hunter-Hawes biplanes.  Describing all the hardware with such a specific terms, even though they are made up, give the reader the impression that it’s all very real, and there are reasons for all of the names, hinting at a much larger and sensibly-designed world.

The only real downside in the book is that it could really use one more pass through copyediting, as there were frequent (every 10-12 pages or so) ‘typos’ where correctly-spelled-yet-incorrect words were put in place of similarly-spelled words that ought to have been there.

I stumbled across this book when searching Amazon’s Kindle listings under “steampunk” and “free”.  It was certainly the latter. The former I would quibble with, however. This is not classic capital-S “Steampunk ” in the vein of Blaylock or Jeter or Harper.  It is certainly a neo-futuristic reimagining of the world, but not at all in a Victorian sense.

It will definitely appeal to those readers who are fans of gadget-laden action yarns full of adventurous heroes, but readers looking for imperial airships soaring over coal-fired tenements are best advised to look elsewhere. And truthfully, it’ll be their loss, too, because Crosswind is a great read that I would heartily recommend and once I clear other reads from my queue, the next Sark Brothers tale is getting my attention.

 


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