“The Sin In The Steel” by Ryan Van Loan: ARC Review

“Before I learned how to read, I thought knowledge was finite, dead and decaying inside old men’s skulls. Now I know the truth, that knowledge is living gold threaded through layers of dead parchment, just waiting to be mined. But while the world may be driven by knowledge, it runs on gold. The hard kind. And if my plans were to succeed, that was the kind of leverage I needed. I saw my chance, placed my wager, and took my seat at the table.”

Synopsis: Buc and Eld are troubleshooters: she’s a young, street-smart girl with a genius intellect, and he’s a charming ex-soldier with a mysterious past. Together, they use their myriad skills to investigate mysteries and solve crimes. When a trading company blackmails the pair into solving the disruption of the Empire’s sugar trade, Buc and Eld are thrust into a dangerous conflict. Can the duo escape the clutches of vicious pirates and clashing gods to emerge victorious? Or is this a puzzle too complex even for Buc?

Thank-you to Netgalley and Tor/Forge for the advance copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read the breadth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, and have even been lucky enough to acquire certain 1st edition copies (such as “His Last Bow”). I just can’t resist a good mystery! Ryan Van Loan’s debut novel promises a modern twist on the traditional Doyle pairing of Holmes and Watson in the form of Buc and Eld, and set in the Fantasy genre as opposed to Victorian England. It’s an interesting combination, and I praise Van Loan for stepping outside the narrow boundaries I see so often in other Fantasy offerings. It’s refreshing.

Our primary protagonist is Buc, and much of the narrative is delivered from her in the 1st person (some chapters are delivered by a 3rd person omniscient narrator). She is young (16), precocious, clever, devious, and almost completely self-serving. Buc’s selfishness certainly makes it complicated to relate to her; it is a trait also exhibited at times by Sherlock Holmes, who put the need to solve mysteries above everything else. Both characters share the trait of chemical dependency (Holmes had a nasty cocaine habit, and Buc smokes “Kan”, a leaf which slows her racing mind just enough for her to think clearly). The difference is that Buc is more… damaged. Holmes, for all his faults, did not have the same sort of tragic backstory as Buc. She grew up on the streets, and it is only within the last 2 years that she has taken to reading (she was illiterate before Eld found her). While both Holmes and Buc share impressive powers of deduction, Buc does not share Holmes’ expertise on a wife array of topics useful to the solving of crimes. Instead, Buc relies on her street smarts and capacity for deceit to get her out of trouble. Buc is not a Mary Sue: she is strong… but very brittle. Her faults are very, very clear, and one grows to empathize with her in spite of her sometimes nasty disposition. The fact Van Loan was able to make me like this person by the end is a definite point in his favor.

Eld clearly functions as a Watson analogue for the purpose of the story: he is a well-spoken individual, with a great capacity for smoothing out Buc’s rough edges. He retains the empathy which Buc lacks, and often helps her through (saves her from…) complex social interactions. Eld is a former soldier, and his background is revealed in part throughout the story; his fighting skills are impressive, and are given the spotlight at various times when Buc’s acid tongue lands them in hot water. Overall, the characters form a classic duo, complementing many of each others’ weaknesses and shortcomings. If you are a fan of this sort of interaction, I assure you that you will find it in abundance in this novel. I’d like to see a bit more of Eld, perhaps by giving him his own POV sections in the next novel; that would round things out nicely and offer a different perspective. He’s got some personality of his own, and I’d like him to be more fleshed out as opposed to being a sidekick along for the ride.

There is another famous duo who should be mentioned when examining the relationship between Buc and Eld: Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen from “The Gentlemen Bastards Sequence” by Scott Lynch.For those who haven’t read this series, it follows the aforementioned characters, who are expert grifters, on their many misadventures. Locke is a genius, with middling combat prowess but a devious mind and a caustic personality; Jean is a polite and well-spoken warrior with a level head and kind disposition. Sound familiar? To be clear: I’m not implying anything here, as this sort of relationship has precedence in literature. I DO feel that there is a certain amount of homage to that other famous fantasy pairing though, and if this was Van Loan’s intent, he did so quite tastefully. In Buc and Eld’s case, their relationship is still very young (as opposed to Locke and Jean who have known each other since their early years), and so the edges have not yet been filed off (which presents occasional conflict); the male/female pairing also creates a different sort of dynamic, and I will simply leave it at that. Overall I’ve noted a number of similarities to Lynch’s work, but this effort is still its own thing. If you liked “The Lies of Locke Lamora”, you may find aspects of this novel to be greatly to your liking as well!

I truly appreciated that this text was built around 1) driving action and 2) well-voiced characters. Van Loan’s characters acted in a consistent manner throughout the text, and their development felt real, not forced. World-building was not completely absent in this text (the world hinted at by the author is fairly rich), but it definitely takes a backseat to clever dialogue and furtherance of the plot. If that’s the sort of narrative you enjoy, then this is probably the right book for you. My main gripe with the story is that while the “Sherlock Holmes” aspect is pushed at the beginning of the story, this rapidly moves to the back burner in favor of a more action/thriller fantasy story. This is a shame to me, as a more dedicated Mystery tale firmly positioned in a Fantasy setting is something we don’t see particularly often at all! That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it: Van Loan’s tight prose and dialogue make it a pleasure to read. I just felt that I started reading Sherlock Holmes in a Fantasy land, and ended up with Locke and Jean trying to solve a mystery. Buc is introduced as a deductive genius, but this skill of hers is very rapidly phased out of the text in favor of her penchant for spinning elaborate lies. It’s a minor issue of consistency, that’s all. Still, I was happy to get swept up in the pull of it, doubly so because of the strong (flawed) female protagonist.

If you’re into mysteries, magic, pirates, clever rogues, strong female protagonists, and huge stakes, you’re going to enjoy this book. It’s a pleasure to read, despite any minor gripes I may have, and I was pulled in VERY quickly (I haven’t read a book this fast in a while, because i couldn’t put it down!). If I hadn’t known before reading, I would have NEVER guessed that this was someone’s debut novel. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up, as it is absolutely worth the time! Tor books made a good choice in picking this one. Please consider pre-ordering this one too as that is the single best thing you can do to help out a new author (or any author for that matter). Adventure beckons!

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Happy Reading!

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