La Mancha and Sancho Panza. Thelma and Louise. Romy and Michele.
Like the best buddy pictures, Ryan Van Loan’s debut, The Sin in the Steel, finds all its heart in the space shared by its two wildly divergent protagonists, Buc and Eld. Brought together under unlikely circumstances, Buc is a young street kid with a mind and a mouth that race faster than anyone can keep up, and Eld is an ex-soldier that doesn’t say much. They’re known for getting the job done no matter the circumstances.
When this unlikely pair is bring their practice to the Shattered Coast—a Caribbean-esque archipelago newly settled, but once wracked by centuries of violent hurricanes—they’re soon hired (err, well… blackmailed) by the Kanados Trading Company to track down the infamous Widowmaker, who has been sinking ships along a popular sailing route, threatening the import and export of sugar, a vital element in the Shattered Coast’s economy. Buc and Eld depart on an adventure that will take them to the Shattered Coast’s farthest reaches to discover a secret that has the potential to challenge the fate of the gods themselves.
Immediately I was reminded of Scott Lynch’s razor-sharp voice in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Van Loan quickly separates himself from Lynch through a refined narrative style that relies as much on action as it does on its genuinely amusing dialogue. There are consequences to every action, costs to all magic. When Buc pushes herself too hard, she falls, and Eld has to pick up the pieces. A gun fight leaves another character wounded and having to hobble around for chapters afterwards. How many times have you read a fantasy book where the heroes escape fight after fight unscathed but for bruises? Van Loan is not easy on his characters, and it pays off in the way the novel’s action scenes often leave a ripple effect for later chapters.
The Sin in the Steel is a blazingly fast book, with a pace that literally never lets up, but Van Loan, with all the skill of a worldbuilder with a dozen books under their belt, sprinkles many little secrets and surprises about his world throughout the action. He hands out lots of little morsels to chew on, but then moves you along before you have time to swallow. Rather than feel frustrating, the way Van Loan does this leaves you eager to learn more, and also immensely satisfied when you start to the put all the little pieces together over the course of the book. Writing a book that simultaneously provides an in-your-face plot and a genuinely well-built out and unique world is no small feat, but Van Loan has pulled it off.
I won’t spoil the worldbuilding too much, but The Sin in the Steel features one of the most promising and unique blends of worldbuilding and magic systems I’ve seen outside of a Brandon Sanderson book. It’s nowhere near as technical as something like Mistborn, but Van Loan mixes science and magic in a way that’s so brilliant I wish I’d thought of it first. Read closely, and you’ll find a world that’s so much more than your average faux-medieval fare. As you get deeper into the story, Van Loan starts offering hints about the origins of the Gods, and the moment it all clicked, I was grinning like a fool. I like writer who take chances with their worldbuilding, and from Van Loan’s archipelago setting to his magic system and history, The Sin in the Steel is bold and reckless—but, just like Buc, it gets the job done anyway.
The Sin in the Steel isn’t all action, though. Van Loan, a former Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry who served on the front lines in Afghanistan, weaves his plot through a thoughtful and deeply personal examination of PTSD. Eld suffers from his time as a soldier in the war against the Burning Lands, haunted by his experience in the face of weapons of mass magical destruction. Buc conversely deals with what we’d consider ADHD or something similar, and self medicates with kan, the Shattered Coast version of cannabis. Together, they navigate these challenges by supporting each other—understanding what the other needs, and how to provide it. It’s a thoughtful examination of how damaged people can find new strength in each other.
Like the protagonists of the best buddy pictures, Buc and Eld impress when they’re given room to bounce off each other, leaving the reader breathless as they careen from one unlikely situation to the next. A book like The Sin in the Steel couldn’t succeed without major chemistry between its heroes, but Van Loan delivers a duo that you won’t soon forget, and who are so much stronger together than separate.
One of my big gripes with a lot of modern fantasy that incorporates grimdark elements is that characters often fall too far on the side of grim and dark, and the writers forget to create a genuine connection between them and the reader. The Sin in the Steel can be a very dark book, with a lot of violence and some truly awful characters, but Van Loan avoids falling into this trap by couching all of his characters’ conflicts in past tragedies and ongoing struggles. We understand why Buc is defensive and caustic, we know why Chan Sha postures, we get the reasons for Eld’s mistrust.
The Sin in the Steel is a rip-roaring epic fantasy that mixes a genuinely unique world with an equally standout magic system. It’s full of characters you’ll root for and despise, who’ll make your skin crawl, and who you’ll cheer on from the sidelines. Packed full of action, tempered by genuinely thoughtful themes about mental health and trust. The Sin in the Steel tells a good self-contained narrative, with a satisfying conclusion, but also leaves the door hanging wide open for the inevitable sequels. In the spirit of A New Hope, Buc and Eld conclude a story, but stand on a precipice of a much larger narrative that promises to blow the scope of The Sin in the Steel out of the water. If Scott Lynch wrote Pirates of the Caribbean, it’d be a lot like The Sin in the Steel.
The Sin in the Steel is available from Tor Books.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “On the Phone with Goblins” and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and a regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink and Patreon.