King of the Cracksmen: An Imaginative Premise Lacking Dynamic Characters to Drive it Forward
Night Shade Books
January 27, 2015
Full disclosure: I received a PDF version of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This debut from TV and film writer Dennis O’Flaherty, dubbed “a steampunk entertainment,” is an alternate history adventure that explores what 1877 in America might have looked like. What if Lincoln had never been assassinated? What if Andrew Jackson had sold the territory obtained through the Louisiana Purchase? What if Tesla had lived long enough to further develop his technology? King of the Cracksmen holds answers to all these questions and more.
After the Civil War, Secretary of War, Eddie Stanton stepped up to run things when an attempted assassination of President Lincoln leaves him mysteriously absent from government proceedings. Russia has purchased the territory west of the Mississippi, renaming it Little Russia. Secretary Tesla (yes, that Tesla) has advanced American technology far enough to create an army of machines: steam generators power Helios light globes, voicewire machines have revolutionized communication, automated soldiers called Acmes roam the streets, and giant Black Deltas patrol the skies.
This is the world Liam McCool belongs to. McCool is a professional cracksman—that is, he makes a living breaking into things. After being blackmailed into performing undercover work for a man named Pilkington, he’s sent to a small town in Pennsylvania to quiet discontent with the new government. There he discovers that he and his lover Maggie had both been unwittingly working for Stanton’s Department of Public Safety. After her murder, he is determined to uncover the culprit. But before he can exact his revenge, he meets world renowned journalist Becky Fox, who ropes him into a plot to expose the corruption of Secretary Stanton and his Department of Public Safety. Over the course of two weeks McCool, Fox, and their team of conspirators journey across New England and Little Russia to foil the plans of a crooked government.
I was initially thrilled with the imagination and creativity that went into this novel. O’Flaherty clearly put a lot of consideration into his creation, and turns familiar history into a strange new world full of steam-powered robots and super-sized animals. I’ve always liked the idea of alternate histories; I think there are few among us who aren’t tempted by the tantalizing “what ifs” behind every major historical event. O’Flaherty indulges our natural curiosity with an exciting adventure packed with twists, turns, and seemingly inescapable dead ends.
Unfortunately, this novel’s characters don’t meet the same standard. O’Flaherty introduces many famous figures that fill spaces, rather than develop original characters. I was at first intrigued when individuals like Tesla came into the mix, but after nearly every minor role was filled by someone from a history book it stopped being novel and became tedious instead.
However, even the original characters that are introduced are not much more compelling. Liam is inexplicably an expert in just about everything: he speaks multiple languages, is a master of jiu-jitsu, and is somehow able to pilot an airship on his own without having ever stepped inside one before. All while being roguishly attractive, of course. Over the course of the novel he learns and grows very little, as hardly anything challenges his physically or mentally. He is the ultimate wish fulfillment character, which is perhaps why I found him dull.
The female characters receive even worse treatment. There are four of them in the entire novel, and though Liam spends a good chunk of his inner monologuing telling us how tough and amazing they are, we never actually see them do anything. Liam’s unnamed grandmother isn’t present for most of the novel, and when we finally meet her, she remains unconscious for the rest of the story. Ada Lovelace is briefly introduced, but never gets the chance to take action. Of course, neither do Mark Twain or Frederick Douglass, who are introduced alongside her.
Even our leading lady can’t seem to catch a break. Becky Fox is a writer who has travelled around the world and even briefly had herself committed to a notoriously brutal asylum for the sake of journalism. Unfortunately, she spends most of her time with Liam, who does anything that needs doing, despite the fact that Becky is perfectly capable. At one point she almost has a chance to help pilot a Black Delta airship, but Liam takes over before she actually accomplishes anything. The “edgiest” thing she does is climb atop a partially-completed Statue of Liberty to view a riot that has broken out, even though Liam tells her not to. You know, just in case you were starting to doubt that she had any agency. There is one occasion where Becky reprimands Liam for his constant underestimation of her, but before long their relationship reverts to its original dynamics: the leader and the love interest.
By far the most tragic character mistreatment is Maggie, Liam’s lover with whom he was planning to elope. I was initially put off when Maggie is killed in the first chapter by an ex-lover, but I kept on, hopeful that maybe this author actually had a reason to kill off a perfectly suitable female lead. I was wrong. Not only does Maggie’s death fall into the overused and harmful cliché of killing off women to spur the men around them to action, her death turns out to be completely unnecessary for even the most basic purpose of plot advancement. Everything that occurs after Maggie’s death would have happened anyway: Liam still would have left Henderson’s Patch, he still would have met Becky, and he would still end up fighting an unjust regime with her. However, we would have been spared his halfhearted pursuit of the alleged killer, who, as it turns out, did not even commit the crime.
In a weak attempt to make Maggie’s character relevant after forgetting about her for ninety percent of the novel, her diary, which was stolen after her murder, reenters the picture as a Deus ex machina that recounts the various injustices of Stanton and his cronies. This is the beginning of a very abrupt ending that leaves many questions unanswered and provides no real closure on anything except the only thing that matters: the guy got the girl.
In the end I found little more in this novel than a straightforward action narrative. If all you are seeking is a heart-thumping joyride then you will probably enjoy this book more than I did. While O’Flaherty’s imaginative steampunk adventure is well-written and exciting, these elements ultimately could not make up for the multitude of clichéd, static characters and lack of any development on their part.