Book Review: Lilith Saintcrow’s The Iron Wyrm Affair

Posted November 17, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from the library in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Lilith Saintcrow’s The Iron Wyrm Affair

The Iron Wyrm Affair


Lilith Saintcrow

steampunk in Paperback edition that was published by Orbit on August 7, 2012 and has 323 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

Other books by this author which I have reviewed include Hunter’s Prayer, Redemption Alley, Flesh Circus, Working for the Devil, Heaven's Spite, The Demon's Librarian, Dead Man Rising, Steelflower, The Devil’s Right Hand, Saint City Sinners, To Hell and Back, Death's Excellent Vacation, Chicks Kick Butt, Dark and Stormy Knights, Angel Town, Storm Watcher, Fire Watcher, Cloud Watcher, Mindhealer, The Red Plague Affair, Dark Watcher, To Hell and Back

First in the Bannon and Clare steampunk series set in early Victorian England in Londinium and revolving around Emma Bannon, a Prima sorcerer, and Dr. Archibald Clare, a mentath.

My Take

It’s Emma Peel and John Steed, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond all mixed together in The Iron Wyrm Affair, and it reminded me why I have enjoyed some of Saintcrow’s stories in the past. Yes, this one had its issues — I was annoyed with the lack of background on a variety of things which left me floundering, yet it also left just enough questions that I want to know more about how Bannon and Clare will work together in future.

The specifics on which I floundered were the role of sorcerers in this version of England, what Tideturn is…it’s all so vague and stilted. I’m a wee bit frustrated by how the relationship will evolve unless there is somehow a ménage à trois evolving in the future, considering Emma’s feelings about Mikal and Clare’s feelings about Emma. And there was a hint of Emma feeling an admiration for Clare.

The two main characters are both warm and cold in their passion, huh? I know, how you can you be both? Well, they are warmly passionate in what they feel on the inside, but on the outside they express themselves rather coldly — I can just hear Peel and Steed within their voices in this blend of Victorian manners and style of speech, magic, and public swearing. From a lady no less! The other characters? You can’t miss them as Saintcrow does introduce the cast of the series. They’re quite colorful, and I do like them.

If the drink was poisoned, why did it take so long to not have an effect?

The conflict Emma feels about Mikal seems false; Saintcrow certainly draws it out, teasing us about why she’s worried about him, but it’s clumsy. When we do get to the truth, it really feels as if the conflict was simply for the melodrama of it. Emma seems to feel an attraction to Mikal, but it’s so vague that I’m left unsure. Clare’s disdain for those around him is clear, but his attraction?? is that the word I want here? to Bannon is, um, confusing, confused? Is he “attracted” as a romantic partner or simply because she’s intelligent? What would have led Clare to think Shields or sorceresses were stupid?

I dunno. It seems as though Saintcrow is working so hard to create an upper classish sort of speech and maintain a Victorian decorum in her characters so she can take it apart to show us how out of the mainstream Bannon is while providing us with the too-intellectual Clare, that the carrying out of the plot is hurt, neglected. Whenever crime scenes or other characters are discussed, I feel cut adrift in language.

The setting is quite well done with its clockwork horses and the soot — Saintcrow giveth us atmosphere and characters and taketh away understanding.

I do grasp the concept of Britannia, but it could have been better served with a more explicit definition. But then it is part and parcel of the whole story: confused and implicit in its suggestions. I suspect that part of my problem is that Saintcrow has respelled names, sayings, events in history, job titles, and locations in this, and I keep having to stop and think about how it fits, giving me too much that I have to think about.

Using Clare and Bannon to describe this steampunk Victorian England is very well done. Good examples of showing and not telling.

There are names thrown about that simply confuse the issue. Possibly done for this reason or to add atmosphere, but I do wish Saintcrow had provided more than these musings by Clare about Lovelace, Babbage, and Somerville. When Roderick Smythe is thrown in, I wondered if he was the Smythe referred to earlier — authors, please give us readers a break and give your characters sufficiently different names!—or a brother or ??? Then there is Emma’s reactions and thoughts about Thrent, Jourdain, Harry, and Namal. Mikal’s judgment of them is unsettling.

I wonder what the point was of raising all those dead…

The Story

Danger’s afoot in early Victorian England and only one woman seems able to see it, to thwart it with the aid of her assistants: the logical Clare and the stalwart Mikal.

Investigations and adventurous action throughout Londinium, throughout Britain! as we encounter beasties and corruption of all sorts.

The Characters

Emma Bannon, a.k.a., the Raven, is a Prima sorceress with a Discipline in the Black. Mikal is a Shield under threat due to his actions at Crawford’s. Severine Noyon is an indentured servant, her housekeeper. Catherine and Isobel are her lady’s maids; Wilbur works in the stables; and, Finch is the butler.

Dr. Archibald Clare, author, bachelor, and recently-unregistered genius-level mentath, is the Sherlock to his magickal Watson. Mrs. Ginn is his long-suffering landlady. Other registered mentaths include Tomlinson, Masters the Elder (I can’t figure out if he’s Peter’s father or not related, if there’s a Masters the Younger??) and Peter Smythe on Rockway, and Cecil J. Throckmorton.

Sigmund Baerbarth is a Bavarian inventor friend of Clare’s with a cast iron stomach. McAllister is his longsuffering landlady who takes good care of him while Chompton is his sometimes assistant.

Signor Ludovico Valentinelli is a Neapolitan assassin whom Bannon hires.

Queen Alexandrina Victrix, the vessel for Britannia, has recently married Consort Alberich, and also recently, thrown off her mother, the Duchess of Kent‘s influence. Lord Grayson, Cedric, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and an old schoolmate of Clare’s.

Miles Crawford, Duke of Embraith, Sorcerer Prime, is a sorcerer who went rogue and tortured Emma. Other sorcerers include Emma’s former lover, Llewellyn Gwynnfud, Lord Sellwyth, who is in Bedlam; Hugh Devon is a Master Sorcerer portrayed as incompetent, maybe; Konstantin Serfimovitch Gippius is a Russian sorcerer; and, Dorian Childe is a gay, intelligent Prime and a friend of Emma’s; Paul is his latest fling; and, Lewis is his Shield, for the moment. Eli is another Shield.

Instructors & more at the Collegia
Prima Grinaud is the high magistrix of the younger classes. Lord Huston is the Collegia’s unloved Headmaster.

Charles Knigsbury is an assassin, a flash boy (which, no, we don’t learn much about). Mehitabel the Black, a.k.a., the Black Mistress, runs the Black Wark, a manufactory of a neighborhood. Dodgerboy is an Altered flash boy and seems to be Mehitabel’s right hand, er, boy. Carthamus is an Altered bridgekeeper. Dr. Vance is someone Clare crossed paths with, whether for ill or good, who knows.

A mentath is all about logic, no emotion, and they are desperate for input. Without the mental exercise, they can die. A Shield seems to be a highly trained human who guards sorcerers/esses and acts as an anchor.

Sorcerers are magic users within one of three Disciplines: White encourages healing, Grey seeks balance, or Black which is of Endor, death. There are four different levels: sorcerer, master sorcerer, Adept, and Prime. No matter what Bannon says, witches are considered lower than sorcerers, common, and they focus on tiny niches within the magic world.

Gryphons help protect Britannia, but do love to eat sorcery-seasoned meat. Dragons, the Timeless, Wyrms, want to take Britannia back. Vortigern, the Third Wyrm, the colourless dragon, and the forefather of all the Timeless children is one of the Great Wyrms upon whose back Britannia rests. Tideturn seems to be dawn and dusk and refills the power levels of magic users, I think. Khloros is the pale horse Emma raises from their parts.

The Cover and Title

The cover make me think of The Avengers with a Victorian flair. It’s Emma Peel, I mean, Emma Bannon on the left in deep burgundy with magic swirling around her hands and John Steed, um, I mean, Clare with cane in hand. Both staring intently at us.

The title is to the point, for it is The Iron Wyrm Affair and threatens all of Britannia.