A Steampunk Lovecraft Adventure
Gears of The Mad God: A Steampunk Lovecraft Adventure By Brent Nichols (2012): 7 out of 10: Checks a lot of the boxes one would expect. Steampunk? Check. Lovecraft. Check. Female lead who is not like other girls? Double Check.
Gears of The Mad God puts me in a bit of a quandary, however. It is not a very well-written book. Gone is the purple prose and description of horrors one would expect from entering a Lovecraftian milieu. Gears of The Mad God is spare in its descriptions. Gears of The Mad God in fact is an incredibly faced paced action heavy entry. We learn little about the characters.
Even our female lead Colleen is a bit of a blank slate. She is mechanically inclined, preternaturally strong, and has an almost hilariously inept taste in fiances. (“No more workshop,” he said sternly. “No more tools. I want you to stay at home and raise our children. I think we should have lots of children, don’t you?”) I am surprised he did not twist his moustache after stating such. Gee, I wonder if Colleen will choose to stay with him instead of rescuing her friends.
An example of showing and then, for some reason, telling
“She dashed through an intersection, flinching as a truck gave her a blast from its horn. And suddenly she was in another world. The street was narrow, clapboard buildings looming close on either side. The sidewalk was far more crowded than it had been, and nearly every person around her was Chinese. The strangeness of it heightened her sense of terror. Strange, spicy smells filled her nostrils and a babble of incomprehensible voices crashed against her ears.“
Okay, so far, so good. What could we follow this paragraph with… How about “It was Chinatown“
While this is my favorite example, Gears of a Mad God is full of scenes like this. It was as if Brent Nichols doesn’t trust his audience to ascertain our heroine has run into Chinatown with such opaque clues like “every person around her was Chinese.”
This is similar to the issue with the fiance above. It is fine to have our heroine choose between friendship and adventure on one side and safety and love and her future on the other. But why undermine the choice by making the one side a cartoonish villain. Wouldn’t it work better if some character flaw inside our protagonist sent her one way than the other? Of course, that would require our heroine Colleen to have flaws, let alone character.
A secret LitRPG Book?
The plot and lightly drawn characters and the entire story itself reminds me in a very positive nostalgia way of the old Call of Cthulhu role playing game. Gears of a Mad God is not an actual LitRPG novel by any means. So your mileage may vary.
Had Brent Nichols written this in 2022 instead of 2012, I could see him making the choice to go the LitRPG route with the material. It certainly would fit his action oriented writing style a lot better. The cult members are practically made for the kind of antagonists that make good low-level fodder in such a book.
There is a great podcast with Michael J Nelson (Of MST3k fame) and his RiffTrax writer compadre Conor Lastowka called 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. And they review some truly horrible books. (Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff by Sean Penn is easily the worst book I have ever read. Pain on a page)
But occasionally they will have a “bad book” that, while not well written or logically plotted, is simply such a fun read I unironically enjoy it. The Mister a 2019 romance novel by Fifty Shades of Grey’s E. L. James is a great example. This is not a so bad, it is good example (The Swarm) but a more guilty pleasure example (Blame it on Rio).
You can see where I am going with this. I am currently reading the similarly themed (minus the Lovecraft angle) steampunk fantasy novel Lady of Devices by Shelley Adina. Lady of Devices has the purple prose, the intricate plotting, fleshed out characters, and great world-building. I am also having a bit of a struggle getting through it. I am not looking forward to see what happens next. I easily consumed Gears of a Mad God over two nights and am looking forward to seeing what happens in the next book in the series.
Now I will not be gifting out Gears of The Mad God at Christmas to friends and family like I did Jacquelyn Benson’s The Fire in the Glass. (Another book with a strong female heroine in turn of the century London. Man, I am running a theme lately.). But I have no trouble recommending it to someone looking for an adventure book to read.
And in the end, is that not what matters? The first book in the Gears of a Mad God series did exactly what it was supposed to. It made me want, né desire, to read more. I don’t have a logical explanation why I am enjoying the fast-paced but light on the details Gears of The Mad God over the more intricate Lady of Devices. I probably should, since I am reviewing it critically. Well, forget it, it’s Chinatown…