Steampunk Month

Cog Ex Machina

China Miéville has been talking here and there lately about a new subgenre category he calls “noird,” which he defines as a combination of crime-noir and weird fiction. With the usual caveats that I’m sure he’d make himself about the absurdity and impossibility of labeling anything, and recognizing that he’s offering noird up with as much tongue in cheek as he originally offered up “new weird,” I’m rather struck by this one. I’ve had my own explorations of the intersection of speculative fiction and mystery (see my somewhat recent anthology Sideways in Crime, for one example), and noir has always been a special interest anyway. I’ve yet to read The City & the City, though it’s screaming at me to do so from its place at the top of the pile of books in my office. In the meantime, Tim Akers’ uber-hyphenated urban fantasy, steampunk, noir mystery Heart of Veridon is about as close to this new “noird” as I imagine one can get.


Veridon is the City of Cog, situated on the edge of a precipice, by a waterfall to dwarf Niagara, and ruled over (mostly) by the ingeniously-named Church of the Algorithm. Expeditions upstream never return, but from somewhere up this mysterious river, bits and bobs of odd clockwork drift downriver. These strange gears and cogs are subsequently salvaged by the church and put to work in the inner workings and underpinnings of the city in ways that shift between steampunk, biopunk, and straight-out magic.


Amidst this wildly-inventive world, Jacob Burn (and isn’t that a great name for a protagonist!) is a disinherited son of a noble house who fell from grace when he failed to be a pilot. He still bears the steampunk/biopunk modifications that working such a job entailed, but now he makes his way as muscle for shady underworld figure Valentine (a name, I’ve just realized, that continues our heart imagery. But I digress…). Jacob is returning via airship from a mission of enforcement for Valentine downriver when we first encounter him. But the airship he is traveling on is sabotaged, and the saboteur, surprisingly, passes something mysterious (a very peculiar cog, what else?) to Jacob as he dies and the ship plummets into the river Reine. Jacob is the only survivor, his second such fall and one he can only survive due to his modifications (Falling from grace and glory is a theme throughout the novel, and the doomed airship itself is aptly named Glory of Day).

But once back on his feet, a frightening and deadly clockwork angel (as seen in Jon Foster’s tremendous cover art), and just about everybody else in Veridon, starts coming after Jacob. Suddenly too hot to know, Valentine cuts Jacob lose, though his girlfriend and prostitute Emily does not. With only Emily’s help, and her own associate, a mysterious, multi-armed “Anansi” named Wilson (I kept picturing a multi-limbed William Burroughs), Burn is on the run, with no idea who he can trust, what’s he’s got, and how to dispose of it without getting himself killed in the process. The murderous, clockwork angel is just the most immediate of his troubles in an adventure that will see the City of Cog shaken from its seediest underworld foundations to its aristocratic heights.

I must say, I absolutely loved this book. I was impressed with how Akers hit the necessary noir-style dialog pitch perfect, and how he managed to tell a compelling noir-mystery inside the confines of an urban fantasy. I was even more impressed with how he managed to make craft his urban fantasy into an urban steampunk fantasy (hence my earlier “uber-hypenated” description). So if the term “noird” hadn’t just been coined, it would certainly be necessary to invent it for this novel. All the while, I kept thinking what a great Alex Proyas film it would make, especially Alex Proyas circa Dark City. I could just see a young Jennifer Connely in the scene where a beautiful young singer is disassembled by bio-mechanical beetles as part of her performance (slash ritual).

Now, like my earlier review of another recent steampunk novel, George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, I have a similar disclaimer. Which is that I liked this book so much that I bought another novel from Tim, just as I did from George. So Tim is writing a somewhat different steampunk fantasy noird for us right now, a novel to be called The Horns of Ruin, which he practically sold me on the first line of the pitch: Eva Forge is the last paladin of a dead god. (See?!?) And like Mann’s Ghosts of Manhattan, the wonderful Benjamin Carré is doing the cover (though it’s not done yet, so I can’t show you.) More on that later.

Meanwhile, Heart of Veridon itself is a stand-alone novel, but you could easily see how Tim could return to this city and these characters, who also feature in shorts published in Interzone and elsewhere. But unlike George Mann’s novel, which has already spawned sequels that have been snapped up by both his US and UK publishers, Veridon’s future isn’t assured (as far as I know). Heart of Veridon came out from Solaris books as one of their last offerings before they changed ownership—the imprint was sold recently by parent company Games Workshop to games developer Rebellion. Now I’ve no idea, and no special knowledge, as to whether Rebellion will want further books in the city of Veridon. All I know is that I want to read them myself! So I hope Heart of Veridon doesn’t get lost in this time of transition, and, as a way of counterattacking against this, I encourage everyone interested in, ahem, the “new noird” to make a special effort to check it out. I promise you that you won’t be sorry. Because Veridon is an amazing place to visit, and if you are like me, you’ll want to go back again and again, Cog Willing.


Lou Anders is the three-time Hugo-nominated editor of Pyr books, as well as the editor of seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 and Sideways in Crime. He recently won a Chesley Award for Best Art Director, and is pretty chuffed about that too. Visit him online at his blog, Bowing to the Future.


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