Dead Iron by Devon Monk My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Devon Monk's Dead Iron: The Age of Steam is a mash-up urban fantasy-meets-steampunk-meets western. Set in a 19th century Oregon small town facing change as the rail comes closer, Dead Iron is a satisfactorily well-written but by-the-numbers example of how steampunk ought to be written.
In Monk's formulation, the veil between faery and Earth is very thin, and a mysterious, rare substance called glim enables those blessed with the Gift of Artifice to empower marvelous steam-powered "matics" with force and capacity and will. Monk's world features mad agents of The Faery King tracking down a banished prince of faery and his dark magics, a college-professor cursed to be a werewolf by a god of an other-than-faery and now turned bounty hunter, and a witch whose only spells are vows and curses, and a chaotic good zombie. Dead Iron is the kitchen sink.
Monk's prose style is amazing. Every character's voice is utterly unique, and Monk attunes both grammar and vocabulary chapter by chapter to the needs of the point-of-view character: Bounty Hunter Ceder Hunt is lettered and well-mannered, but brutalized by his curse; witch Mae Lindstrom is simple, home-bound, but determined; the zombie's thoughts are stuttering, guttering, but driven by a savage force of will. Monk's language gives every character the room he or she needs to be clear and expressive.
The plot is solid, but predictable. Monk is very good about getting her characters center-stage and setting things in motion. It's steampunk clockwork, and not a piece is out of place as the chess game goes from opening moves to its explosive ending. She pulls new pieces into the plot smoothly and without raising your sense of disbelief, she lays down foreshadowing with skill and experience.
However, the book is not perfect. The heroes are all too damned Good, the villains too damned Evil, the ordinary townspeople too damned Stupid. Dead Iron's morality is pure fairy tale, and none of the main characters really grows much during the course of the book. Each character is led by circumstance and reconcilition with one's existing values, rather than growth and maturity or avarice and decay, from one scene to the next. They're all wonderful people, but that's about it. The book relies on language, likability, and a predictably relentless buildup to the final cinematic confrontation to sell its successor. It works, but just barely.