2013; 224 pages. Book 1 of “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” trilogy. New Author? : No. Genre : Steampunk; Fantasy; Paranormal. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Bettina Rothschild and Arjuna Rana are two of the finest detectives in Eisenstadt. They work super well together, which is no surprise since they also happen to be husband and wife. Bettina supplies the beauty and the brains, and Arjuna contributes the brawn and several other useful skills, including having a photographic memory. Both of them are deadly accurate with their coilguns.
So it’s no wonder when the head of the Ministry of Justice, Gisele Kaiser, calls them to her private office and commissions them to take on an ultra-sensitive case. It seems that one of the city’s foremost art-thieves has just successfully managed to brazenly escape from the maximum-security Torghast Prison.
There are a couple of rather bizarre things about the case though.
For starters, breaking out of Torghast is no small feat. There are multiple guards to bribe, and gangland criminals to hire to assist in the getaway. That takes money and connections, neither of which a mere burglar is likely to have.
Then there’s the request by Gisele Kaiser that the investigation be handled in utmost secrecy. Well, that’s somewhat understandable, since the art thief’s name is Ranulf Kaiser, Gisele’s brother. If word gets out about this, the political scandal will be enormous.
But the oddest part about the case is the timing. Ranulf Kaiser had just about completed his prison sentence. He was due to be released from prison in less than a month.
What’s so important that he’d jeopardize his entire future by escaping now?
What’s To Like...
If you’re a fan of Steampunk, you’ll love The Kaiser Affair. World-building is a Joseph Robert Lewis forte, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There are some neat gizmos: you can drive around in (steam-powered) autocarriages; shoot your coilgun at criminal lowlifes, and if you’re daring enough, take a flight in the just-been-invented autogyros. There’s a huge “drifting isle”, called Inselmond, floating about a mile above Eisenstad, and if you listen carefully enough, you’ll find that all sorts of birds can talk, which sometimes makes them a very convenient source of information.
Legends abound about how and why the drifting isle got there, and there’s even speculation that it might be populated. No one can tell, because all you can see from earth is the rocky bottom of it. There’s also talk about some sort of secret society of assassins in Eisenstadt, called “The Shadows”. But nobody’s ever seen them, so who knows if it's true or not?
I liked the strong female leads for both the good guys and the baddies. Ditto for the fact that Bettina, although still rather young, has to use a cane to get around. Perhaps this is a subtle tip-of-the-hat to Robert Heinlein, who used to frequently endow his heroes with disabilities in his Sci-Fi stories was back in the 1950’s. Education-wise, Bettina has earned a degree in Chemistry and one of the other female characters has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. It’s a neat world where women are just as educated as the men.
The pacing is brisk, and there’s lots of action to keep you turning the pages. There is an element of Fantasy also woven into the story: some of the weaponry is magical, and you can consult astrologers (called “starcasters”) if you want, although their helpfulness is at times limited. Along with all the thrills and spills, Joseph Robert Lewis also touches on a serious theme – racial prejudice – and I thought this was a very nice touch. Finally, the banter between our two protagonists is often hilarious and always witty.
There are 23 chapters, plus an epilogue, covering 224 pages, so it’s easy to find a good place to stop reading for the night. The R-rated stuff is limited to a couple cusswords, one roll-in-the-carriage, and some implied (but never carried out) mild bondage. The settings are limited to Eisenstadt and the Drifting Isle, but that allows the author to develop both sites in detailed fashion. Everything builds to a suitably exciting ending, with a twist or two in it that I didn’t see coming. The Kaiser Affair is a standalone story, with all the story threads tied up nicely.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Riparian (adj.) : relating to or situated on the banks of a river.
“A murder of ravens, a parliament of owls, a brood of chickens, and a flight of swallows,” Bettina said. “But a flock of birds. A flock.”
Arjuna looked up from his waffles slathered in syrup, butter, and strawberries. “I’m sorry, what?”
“A flock, Arry,” Bettina sipped her tea and peered thoughtfully out through the café windows at the bright morning light on the bust street outside. “I know what a murder is, and a parliament, and a brood. They’re all real words. But what is a flock?”
He smiled and finished his coffee. “It‘s a word, dear. Try not to overthink it.” (loc. 443)
“I asked you, what is that thing in your hand?”
The tall Dumastran turned his head and looked at the shining silver bow resting on his shoulder as though he were seeing it for the first time. “Oh this? Yes, well, Strauss smashed my poor little coilgun in that miserable tomb, so I had to make do.”
“Make do?” Bettina cleared her throat. “Dear, when one makes do in a miserable tomb, one usually manages with a dusty old rock or a filthy old bone. One does not make do with an ancient recurve bow, doubtlessly forged from strange alloys using long-lost metallurgical secrets.” (loc. 2226)
The Kaiser Affair currently sells for $2.99 at Amazon. The other two books in the series, Black Mercury by Charlotte E. English, and The Machine God by MeiLin Miranda, both sell for $3.99. Joseph Robert Lewis has a slew of other Fantasy e-books to offer, ranging from free to $2.99 apiece. I read the Aetherium series a few years ago, when it was just a trilogy and the books had different titles. It is now a (completed) 8-book series, and you can pick up the Omnibus edition, containing all eight stories for $9.99, which is a really good deal.
A mind like a library, the body of an angel, and the stomach of an adolescent. Two out of three aren’t bad, I suppose. (loc 582)
The Kaiser Affair has fabulous world-building, lot of action and adventure, and fascinating characters. Yet one important thing is missing: a compelling storyline. As other reviewers noted, this really is just a 225-page chase scene. Entertaining, yes. Epic, no.
At the end of the e-book, there’s an “extra” that perhaps sheds some light on this. Titled, “A Note about The Drifting Isle Chronicles”, it gives the background of how the story came to be, which is a rather unique process.
First, a group of writers with diverse genre focuses got together and spent weeks doing the world-building. Once that was finished, each author took a separate piece of this new world (which essentially is just Eisenstadt and Inselmond) and wrote a novel in whatever genre they specialized in. The result was a trilogy having three different authors.
I can think of two other writers who have tried something similar, albeit in both cases, it was aimed at encouraging Fanzine Fiction. John Scalzi developed one in his Old Man’s War universe, and Eric Flint did one in his 1632 alternate dimension series. My impression is that neither one went over particularly well.
I suspect that any “shared” setting has an inherent weakness: nothing earthshaking can happen. For example, Joseph Robert Lewis can’t annihilate half the population of Eisenstadt with a neutron bomb, because two other authors are using the same setting and would have to accommodate such an event in their storylines. Thus, you're limited to penning stories that don't disturb the world-building and don't kill off any of the main characters.
Whether this had any impact on this particular collaborative world-setting I can’t say. But I note that in the end, only three writers used the world that they (and others?) built, and ANAICT none of them ever penned a second novel set in it.
8 Stars. There may be nothing “epic” about the storyline in The Kaiser Affair, but I still enjoyed it from the first page to the last. Joseph Robert Lewis can probably write a story about paint drying that will still keep a reader turning the pages. If you can be happy with a Steampunk story that doesn’t involve saving humanity, then this book's will be a delight.