Maliha Anderson, Books 1-3 (Maliha Anderson #1-3)

by Steve Turnbull

3.5 stars, actually.

This was uneven. However, each successive story got better and more intriguing as the story (and possibly the writing) got deeper into the alternate colonial east indies and the main character’s emotional arc both with her mentor and her love interest.

The first book (only 80 pages) introduces Maliha as she rides in a dirigible on her way home. She is somewhat of a loner– too native for the British, too British for the natives. She’s the only brown-skinned girl in the first class compartment. A maid is murdered, and Maliha investigates. During the investigation she makes herself known to a Mr. Crier, who is suspiciously agile and good with guns, and a Mrs. Makepeace-Flynn who will become her mentor.

Truthfully, I almost stopped reading at the first book. There was an unfortunately repeated almost verbatim description of the Fortress that a quick editing eye could have fixed up. There’s also obvious backstory (prequel or novella hanging around out there somewhere as all the characters refer to the Taliesin Affair as if we should know what it is, but we don’t) but no explanation for the way Maliha moves about the ship and the murder mystery emotionally aloof, completely bound by polite conventions, and surprisingly able to order around older, richer, white people with no social repercussions at all. In fact, her character read to me so much like a white man instead of a half-native young girl that it made me almost quit in frustration. I kept saying to myself “why are they letting her order them around like this?” etc. And she gets some extremely upsetting news at the end, I mean, REALLY upsetting but this barely registers. T

It’s still barely registering as we begin the second book now with Maliha ensconced in her mentor’s house. The second and third book involve local murders on the ground, and a deepening relationship with Mr. Crier, who can also fly airplanes and is perfectly willing for Maliha to order him around, use him as transportation, criticize his every word, and act fairly coldly.

And here’s my main problem with Maliha: she’s emotionally stunted. This is okay if it informs her character in a logical way, in a spock/holmes/data kind of way, but the climax of the third book has her making some illogical choices about putting herself in harm’s way partly in order to seek what she considers emotional tutelage– and I felt a more coldly logical character would have made different choices.

So it’s possible that my issues with the book revolve around my own personal preference for stories (even in the steampunk genre which granted, is actually a genre where lingering on descriptions of gadgets and clothing is acceptable because they’re so cool) that focus more on the emotional arc of the main character. And I realize that its become quite trendy for main characters to be young girls these days, but I almost wished Maliha was a boy instead, so that the leeway the other characters gave her would be explained, or, alternatively for female Maliha to experience more consequences from her aloof and commanding manner that this alternate colonial indies world surely would have a negative reaction to.

On the other hand, because the story as it progressed by the third book allowed Maliha to emerge as grappling with her own emotional issues a bit, it kept me reading. So I guess whether you’d enjoy it depends on whether you read steampunk purely for the coolness/entertainment factor, or whether you want a bit more emotional meat on the bones of the story.

Some other steampunk series that you might enjoy:

Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger and Blood of Earth series (Tackles race issues with a slight side of romance, and of course, dirigibles!)

Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series (Alternate Civil War history)

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series (Alternate WWII history, rip-rousing dirigible adventures, and a YA sensibility)

Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (kind of a paranormal romance steampunk tale with werewolves and gay vampires and lots of manners)

Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London (straight up historical romance with fun, fun, steampunk and paranormal elements: steam level is hot)

Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas (this series is quite amazing, actually, with seriously developed world wide alternate history, zombies, krakens, mechanical arms, female pirate captains, angsty, and steamy, steamy love with an alpha-male flavor. Quite addicting)