Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Pages/Word Count: 190 Pages
Rating: 5 Stars
Blurb: A breathtaking tale of passion and adventure in the untamed skies!
Prosperity, 1863: a lawless skytown where varlets, chancers, and ne’er-do-wells risk everything to chase a fortune in the clouds, and where a Gaslight guttersnipe named Piccadilly is about to cheat the wrong man. This mistake will endanger his life . . . and his heart.
Thrill! As our hero battles dreadful kraken above Prosperity. Gasp! As the miracles of clockwork engineering allow a dead man to wreak his vengeance upon the living. Marvel! At the aerial escapades of the aethership, Shadowless.
Beware! The licentious and unchristian example set by the opium-addled navigatress, Miss Grey. Disapprove Strongly! Of the utter moral iniquity of the dastardly crime prince, Milord. Swoon! At the dashing skycaptain, Byron Kae. Swoon Again! At the tormented clergyman, Ruben Crowe.
This volume (available in print, and for the first time on mechanical book-reading devices) contains the complete original text of Piccadilly’s memoirs as first serialised in All the Year Round. Some passages may prove unsettling to unmarried gentlemen of a sensitive disposition.
Review: The first thing you’ll notice when you crack open Alexis Hall’s Prosperity is that the book’s written in some pretty heavy vernacular. Piccadilly, an orphan and a guttersnipe, narrates the story with so much sass and attitude to spare that his language, if at first a little challenging to get into if you’re not expecting it, almost serves like an emphatic exclamation point to his hilarious commentary. As he’s grown up in the streets of London, he’s illiterate and is sadly hardened for a boy his age (eighteen, he reckons, but isn’t sure), and his interactions with so many different characters – mostly adults who’re educated in varying degrees – are a never-ending source of delight. He’s alternately exasperated, mystified, resentful, contemptuous, and childish in his dealings with his fellow adventurers. And from a hardened urchin who thinks lowly of himself, Dil gradually develops into a cautiously hopeful young man who starts to believe that, hey, he’s got some worth, after all. Not only that – through dangerous encounters with clockwork zombies* and monstrous krakens, he also learns to see some of the good things in people, regardless of their habits and personalities.
Prosperity, then, is very much an adult coming-of-age story set in a steampunk Wild West setting that includes flying ships and Victorian England – really, you have to read it to understand the difficulty I’m having pinning down the setting. Suffice it to say, it’s a glorious addition to one of my favorite sub-genres: historical fantasy. And for it to sustain a sharp, dry sense of humor from start to finish only deepens my appreciation for it. I think that’s really what sets this book apart from a lot of fantasy books I’ve read in the past; it’s the meticulousness of Hall’s treatment of Dil’s character in addition to the world-building. Even with the snark and the attitude and all the other marks of a very vulnerable young man, Dil comes away at the end as a surprisingly complex character.
In addition to Piccadilly, the supporting cast of characters help bolster the fun insanity of the book. Yes, some of them are tropes, but they’re also written with so many juicy quirks that one can’t help but look past the familiar and revel in the offbeat sensibilities they bring to the plot. The women, in particular (Miss Grey and Gap-Toothed Alis), tend to steal the scene when they’re on camera. How can they not? One’s an opium-addicted governess who’s also not a one-whore woman, and the other’s a rough-and-tumble bawdy house owner who’s also not a one-woman whore. Byron Kae, on the other hand, suffers the least amount of character development, which is a right shame considering who he is and how his relationship with Dil develops. He’s not only the captain of the Shadowless, but he’s also an aethermancer, his connection to his ship almost literally biological. We get to see that link during battle scenes, where the damage to the ship also becomes a serious injury to Kae. I’d have loved to have known a great deal more about aethermancy beyond the brief references Kae makes to his own experiences turning into one. It’s a fantastic and refreshingly different treatment to the classic captain-ship connection, which works brilliantly in a steampunk setting.
I think the weakest element in the book is Ruben Crowe himself. He’s the trope-y character who never rises above those predictable qualities you expect in someone like him. Beyond angsting over William (“Milord” to Dil) and providing a quiet, level-headed voice to escalate drama and conflict, there’s really nothing much to him that keeps him front and center with the rest of the cast. Even when Dil gets all swoony over him, and even when the scene has Ruben in a long dialogue with someone, he still fails to emerge from the background and stoke my interest. I think it’s got much to do with the fact that the rest of the cast, even Milord himself, are so colorful and out there that having this ruggedly handsome, tormented man of God in the mix only emphasizes his well-trodden, overly familiar characteristics. If anything, there were a few scenes – the most infuriating one involving a fight scene in which Kae’s badly injured – where I just wished Ruben would get kicked off the ship for good. To Alexis Hall’s credit, we at least see the repercussions of Ruben’s ineffectuality when Miss Grey brings the banhammer down, so to speak, and lets him and Milord have it.
Maybe he isn’t meant to be seen as ineffectual, but that was what I got from his character, and by the time I was done with the book, I still couldn’t get myself to care for him and his future and whatever else comes his way. I’ll admit, though, that Dil’s reflections on Ruben and Milord in one of the later scenes are so moving that I had to double back and re-read that passage. It’s a beautifully written paragraph describing an imagined scene, and it reveals so much about not just Ruben and Milord from Dil’s perspective, but Dil himself. It’s elegiac and surprisingly heartbreaking, but at the same time indicative of a point in Dil’s maturation where he learns to let go and move on. And again, Dil’s language and lack of formal learning become the right kind of punctuation mark that emphasizes those things I’ve noted. Stripped of the usual coy trappings of proper speech, anyway, his manner of communicating exposes his heart to us with a certain rawness that got me a tad emotional.
Character niggling aside, I loved this book. Piccadilly proves himself to be the perfect point-of-view character for a fun, crazy adventure in the skies. That the book provides us with the perfect combination of humor and drama, action, poignant reflections (Dil’s changing views about his life and the people who affect him), and some fantastic world-building gives me high hopes of seeing future titles from Alexis Hall.
* My favorite fight scene in the book. If this were a video, I’d have been banned from the website for destroying the replay button.
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