Book Review: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett

gideon smith and the brass dragonMore than a year ago, I got the chance to read and review Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett and found it to be one of the more pleasant surprises of 2013. I found the main character Gideon Smith to be a nerdy, yet good-hearted individual who set off to seek justice for his father’s murder and inevitably found himself become the hero of his own adventure story. Now I finally got my hands on the sequel Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, thanks to My Bookish Ways, and can now share my thoughts on the next chapter in Gideon’s journey.

Four months have passed since the end of Mechanical Girl. Gideon Smith has been through extensive military training to prepare himself to be the next “Hero of the Empire”. After a successful mission to rescue two British scientists trapped on a dinosaur infested island in the Pacific, he finally gets assigned the mission he has been waiting for: to track down the brass dragon stolen by the American air pirate Louis Cockayne. This ancient Egyptian weapon is piloted by Maria, a mechanical girl who has stolen our young hero’s heart. Gideon, with the help of his friends, travels to an alternate North America divided between the British, Spanish, Japanese and numerous free states. He will confront the insane mechanical “King of Steamtown” and on the way meet the masked swordsman “La Chupacabras”, the immortal wanderer known only as “The Nameless” and a Japanese scientists building a weapon to defend his new home in California from a growing threat.

Yeah, weird I know, but its steampunk so if you can’t handle the weird you can stop reading this review right now.

My formula for reviewing a book starts with an introduction and a brief plot summary and follows with what I liked about the book. I usually end with what I didn’t like about the book, but I try at least to find someone to recommend this to in the conclusion where I give my final verdict. This is one of the few times I am going to start with what I didn’t like because it happened before I even reached page one of the story.

To cut to chase, the maps were horrible. I read an uncorrected proof of Mechanical Girl, so I couldn’t comment on the maps then, but the maps of Brass Dragon do not live up to the standard of what I expect from Tor. There are two maps included in Brass Dragon. The first shows the modern world political map (well semi-modern since South Sudan and a few other changes are missing) an occasional shade of gray to denote the alternate political entities. The second map is even worse. It shows the locations of certain places important to the story over the state boundaries of our timeline’s United States. Whether they are correct is suspect since New York City is told to be located in North Carolina! With so many creative alternate cartographers to be found on the Internet, it really is a sign of extreme laziness on the part of the publishers to present these poor and error ridden maps in the final copy of their book.

Okay, map rant aside, Brass Dragon was a fine steampunk story. Barnett’s bawdy humor was in high form and references to pop culture are plentiful, including Zorro, Kaiju and American Westerns. The book does suffer from poor character development. Despite being the title character, Gideon Smith doesn’t really experience any profound changes as he did in the first book. In fact many of the supporting casts had better character arcs then he did and proved the more interesting characters to follow. In a few rare instances he deals with the realities of being a “hero” and what it means to work for the government, but I just didn’t feel the emotional punch as I did in the last book. I felt much the same way when I reviewed The Place of Dead Kings.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t overall enjoy Brass Dragon, but because it is a sequel to Mechanical Girl, it loses in the comparison. The fact that you really do need to read the first book to fully enjoy the sequel is also a con. Nevertheless it is still a good book and if you enjoy steampunk and alternate worlds than you can’t go wrong with the Gideon Smith series, which more than likely will continue with a third book if the ending is any indication.

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