A Tasty, Steampunk Treat

The cover copy calls Dennis O'Flaherty's King of the Cracksmen a steampunk entertainment. The novel is that and more. In terms of style, it is a creative mélange that smacks of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In historical detail and compelling alternate history chops, it matches Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt and Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell while being a far more compact piece of work. In its very bravura, it pops seamlessly out of the author's obviously clockwork, steampunk gray matter. Reading this book is like quaffing strong espresso on a rocket bound for a cognac bar on the far side of the moon.

A veteran scribbler in other media, O'Flaherty is far more than workmanlike in his approach to this, his first novel. Indeed, he draws upon both the kind of academic background that makes scholars sit up and take notice (Harvard, Oxford, a Ph.D.in Russian History), yet it's hard not to figure him for the cyberpunk love child of Agatha Christie and William Gibson. He names his protagonist Liam McCool after a mythical Irish giant, and makes him a safe-cracking thief clever enough to cheer for and stubborn enough to worry us. Then he surrounds McCool with a world of delta-wing airships that fire death rays from the mind of Nikola Tesla, crooked cops, a beautiful girl who indulges him a little, and robots produced by the same outfit that gave us Wile E. Coyote's roadrunner traps. Driving all those cool gadgets is a priceless and magical substance, itself an inventive masterpiece, that fuels the plot's greed engine.

Mr. O'Flaherty is not only a fount of fascinating ideas; he nails the Irish brogue. More, he pens a quaint romantic subplot that charms offers a welcome relief from both the recent spate of bondage pulp and the gritty, street-wise, love-busting portrayals of life on the streets of the real world. Actually, the way he manifests literary mischief makes you wonder if, as a child, he might have put a snake in his teacher's desk drawer or, as an adult, he might write himself in as a candidate for mayor who promises cactus-flavored ice cream for the masses and electrocution of parents who fail to give their children a sense of where this country comes from and where it must go if we are to have a just and equable future.

In O'Flaherty's version of that future, smarmy, scheming intelligence runners and recast Indian chiefs collide, great writers and inventors bubble up and fade, and a colony of Russians living west of the Mississippi hatch ruthless plots and engage vodka-soaked tirades with historical verisimilitude. Despite all the fun, King of the Cracksmen doesn't merely advocate for social justice in soft fashion, it slyly indicts corruption, mourns the fading of democracy, and decries the growing class stratification in our society all as deftly as someone convincing you to buy them a drink so they can tell you, first hand, about your wife's virtues as a lover.

Perhaps, in the end, it is the moral and political underpinnings that make this novel so worthy of your attention. It's not merely category breaking. That phrase has become such a cliché these days, when Internet publishing allows anyone and everyone to write down every little thing that comes into his or her head. It's not merely fanciful and clever; it has real substance. Real meat. Any sour notes or gripes? Well, with so much going on, the story has its Byzantine twists. They're part of the fun, though, and worth the effort it sometimes takes to follow them. King of the Cracksmen is a multi-layered treat, and you're going to read it twice.