Ok, I’ll admit I picked up Ed Greenwood’s Iron Assassin because of the cover. A skull wearing a tattered top hat and high collar coat, with clockwork behind one eye is hard to say no to. It turned out to be a really great story. Some may know Ed Greenwood from his Forgotten Realms novels, however Iron Assassin is a total departure from that. No elves or wizards here. Marked by complex plotting, it’s an almost melodramatic steampunk novel set in an alternate England. Queen Victoria (there have been several Queen Victorias) is a shadow of her former self being kept alive by steam powered life support. Her empire (the Empire of the Lion as it is called) is largely run by the heir apparent, Frederick Villiers Hanover, better known as Lord Lion. Lord Lion must face a horde of enemies and opponents, but none is greater than the Ancient Order of the Tentacle, which seeks to over throw the empire.
Enter Jack Straker (aka Lord Tempest), tinkerer extraordinaire and secret agent of the empire, and his trusted friend, Bleys Hardcastle. Straker creates a secret weapon to fight the Tentacle; this weapon is the reanimated corps of one Bently Roper, former chimney sweep with a past. Augmented with clockwork so that he can be controlled and an exoskeleton to make him largely invulnerable, Bently, now known as Bently Steelforce, aka the Silent Man, aka the Iron Assassin, is theoretically controlled by Straker. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Steelforce is as much of a threat to the empire as a help. Taken over by agents of the Tentacle, or just running loose, much of the story revolves around Straker and Hardcastle, and the latest edition to the agents of the empire, Rose Gordhammond, trying to defeat the Tentacles and catch Steelforce. All of this isn’t helped by the fact that Lord Lion is a congenital womanizer, which often means he isn’t always in the best place to be protected.
The tone of this book is very fast paced. You move from one crisis to another and back again. One second, Tentacle forces are attacking the heir apparent’s love nest. The next, Straker is digging around in Steelforces skull trying to make him a little more biddable. There are tons of characters; there is a Dramatis Personae at the front of the book. at first I thought it was an affectation, but, no, I really used it to keep track of the characters, especially as the point of view shifts throughout the book. Greenwood is very careful about how much of the world he lets you see. You have to get pretty far in before you start getting a sense of what makes the place tick. You also only get a hint here and there about the world beyond the Empire of the Lion. The setting is very well drawn, though: London is over crowded and filled with smoke and steam and you can practically smell it.