This is a critique of the third story in the steampunk anthology ‘Mechanized Masterpieces’ edited by Penny Freeman. The purpose is not to show all the mistakes and short comings, or say that I am a better writer, because clearly I’m not. This is simply an exercise in critical reading with the goal of improving my own writing, and encouraging great writing from any reader that passes by.
There will be lots of SPOILERS here. You have been warned.
‘Micawber and Copperfield and the Great Diamond Heist of 1879’ (M&W) by David W. Wilkin based on David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, another great literary work I have not read… Before I start I have to thank David for getting me onto the advanced reader list for Mechanized Masterpieces. It was the post on his blog asking for advanced readers that started all of this, so blame him.
On to the story. What I really liked about M&W was the very thorough treatment of dirigible sailing and warfare. Wilkin clearly put a lot of thought and research into the topic and the result is a sky-sailing tale that feels like it’s being told by someone who has really been there and done it. The entire story is full of incredible detail that really brings the the art of dirigible sailing to life.
I know Wilkin from his blog as a historical fiction author with a focus on the Regency era, and his strengths and flaws as an author of steampunk fiction are in accord with that resume. Strong in technique and detail, less strong in action and character development.
Written in the third person, M&W follows the a daring airship mission to recover stolen diamonds and prevent a war, all from the perspective of Captain Micawber. As I mentioned, the story is full of fascinating maneuvers on board and by a flying airship and its crew. Alongside the mission runs the story of Micawber’s relationship with his new midshipman Copperfield, or rather the relationship their ancestors had.
This is, unfortunately, where the tales weaknesses come out. Both the main plot and the side plot involving Micawber and Copperfield are rather slow and a bit muddled. As to the diamond heist and the need to recover said diamonds, the purpose is a bit vague and the unveiling of the German involvement even more vague. It does however, lead to an awesome German vs British dirigible battle among the clouds. This confusion, however, may be due to my ignorance regarding the literary works on which the short story is founded. I just like my short stories a little more ‘tight’.
The side plot involving the two men isn’t really a plot, and I’m not sure it’s meant to be. Ultimately, it comes off more as an interesting anecdote with little conflict between or against the two men specifically. I would have liked to see some more character development of these two sailors who seemed rather flat when compared with some of the less important characters such as Bo’sun Weller.
Another struggle for Wilkin is in the pacing of his action scenes. Even the bar fight between our heroes and the notorious Germans focuses on the really well thought out and interesting details of each punch that is thrown, but ultimately diffuses the sense of excitement and drama inherent in the fight. It is something of a stylistic issue that may or may not be a problem for some readers, but I found it a bit slow.
All in all M&W was an interesting read it reminded me in some respects of ‘Moby Dick’ by Melville in the way it brings you into the ways and workings of the men on board the ship. I would have liked to see Wilkin’s treatment of the story with more freedom of length to develop the characters further and to refine the pacing of the action both in the air and on the ground once the really good groundwork details had been laid in the beginning.