When Devon Monk's new series starter Dead Iron was nominated for the July Seal of Excellence, Morgan and Whitney were both intrigued by the interesting interplay between good and evil in Monk's unique steampunk Wild West setting.
Morgan: Where do we even begin with this book? It is an Old West/steampunk/paranormal/fantasy. Try saying that five times fast.
Whitney: This story will definitely appeal to fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly or anyone who likes a mash-up of the Old West and steam technology. In the world of Dead Iron, people “devise” automated machines of all shapes and sizes that run on what else? — steam. But what I really loved more than the fantastical devices is the way that Monk laces her world with the eerie magic of the Strange.
Morgan: The author was a bit skimpy on the details of the Strange, but that just makes it more mysterious and scary. There is no real way to define the Strange other than to say "evil" or "other."
Whitney: The magic of the Strange feels so … different and wrong. Cue the creepy western music!
Morgan: And sagebrush rolling across the street!
Whitney: Speaking of dustballs, Hallelujah, Ore., is definitely not a town I would want to get stuck in.
Morgan: I don’t think the characters are stuck as much as they all congregate there for a reason. Like supernatural forces bring everyone together.
Whitney: All finding their way to Cedar Hunt, the main protagonist of the story.
Morgan: Hmmm. Interesting that you call him a "protagonist" and not "hero."
Whitney: While Cedar is the first character we meet, I think that he jockeys for the position of hero with several other key players. But let’s talk Cedar for a moment.
Morgan: He is definitely a sympathetic character. He used to be a teacher with a family, and he lost everything. And now he is in Hallelujah and seen by the townsfolk as a “dirty drifter,” someone who brings bad luck. He is not trusted even though he continually helps the people of Hallelujah without any reward.
Whitney: If I had the string of not just bad, but awful, horrible experiences resting on my mind, I think I’d be pretty volatile. Volatile and crotchety.
Morgan: True, Cedar has every reason in the world to become bitter, hard and evil. Yet he follows a code not to bring harm to “the weak, the poor, or the women and children.” He’s not what you would call a warm person, but he is certainly a good man — so yes, maybe he is a hero.
Whitney: But let's not forget the little matter of his curse. I mean, Cedar’s doing these good deeds in a desperate attempt to hold on to his humanity.
Morgan: Oh yes, the curse. In my opinion a rather harsh punishment given to him by a Pawnee god. During a full moon, Cedar turns into a werewolf and he's ordered to “drive the darkness back through the holes and send the Strange from this land.” Again, we get that indefinable "Strange" — and the troubles that come with it.
Whitney: Curses and Native American gods are just the tip of the iceberg that is the Dead Iron paranormal elements.
Morgan: Right, there are the Madder Brothers, miners who listen to the soil and know the secrets of the stones.
Whitney: And Rose, the 17-year-old adopted daughter of the general store owner. Rose can hear thinking of living things (including trees) and has a “deviser’s knack” of creating automated devices
Morgan: And the bogeyman who kidnaps the blacksmith’s young son, Elbert.
Whitney: And Mae Lindsom, the witch who is skilled in dark magic and can bind both people and things. (Even though she’s stopped using the old ways since she got married.)
Morgan: And speaking of Mae, we can’t forget about Jeb — her husband who can’t die, even though the evil LeFel has killed him three times.
Whitney: Um, Shard LeFel is straight-up terrifying. Terrifying like a pterodactyl. That’s right, terrifying as an ancient flying dinosaur.
Morgan: Let’s not get carried away. He’s not quite as old as the dinosaurs. It has only been 300 years since his brother exiled him from his home and turned LeFel into a mortal.
Whitney: Ha ha, “carried." But really, LeFel is dangerous. Especially because his true death is imminent and he will do anything to stop it, including amassing an army of Strange and semi-living automated creatures. Oh, and he’s been bringing pure evil to Hallelujah by making it the latest site of his railroad construction, which ushers in the Strange …
“[LeFel had] given the Strange a promise he would lay the dead iron down, cutting paths to guide the strange across the land so they could slake their hunger on the nightmares and pain of mortals and walk as men.”
Morgan: So maybe not all of the characters find their way to Cedar, maybe it is LeFel who is the force that unites the story’s characters. Maybe he is the protagonist.
Whitney: I hope not — he is terrible. Although several times the author mentions his charismatic mannerisms and beautiful appearance. He’s always dapperly dressed and he has these piercing blue eyes.
Morgan: I like Jeb’s description of LeFel better. He calls him “a devil in a coat of hair and bone.”
Whitney: So true, he — LeFel — is absolutely my least favorite character. Although with such a large cast of characters I had a hard time trying to pick a single favorite.
Morgan: There’s the boy, the wolf, the witch — the only thing missing is the wardrobe. To be honest, it was a bit hard for me to get into the story at first. It takes a bit of time to introduce everyone due to the fact that there are no stereotypical characters here — no one has easily explained motivations or connections. "Complex" doesn’t even start to describe these people.
Whitney: You know what? That’s one of my favorite things about the story, it’s so different and there are so many people who are important, that you really have to just go along with the story at its own pace and give up trying to understand or predict what is going to happen. There are just so many different elements that influence the adventure.
Morgan: What really helped me was that all of the characters eventually have a rallying point. Everyone is after LeFel, for one reason or another. The characters’ paths cross, their fates align and everyone moves toward the showdown where they will meet. But we should leave that for the reader to discover!