In the first several chapters of Devon Monk's novel Dead Iron: The Age of Steam, we meet the following characters: a werewolf, a man that comes back from the dead, a banished prince from another world, and a witch, to name just a few.
We also meet three brothers who are associated with something called the Strange.
Oh, and the whole novel takes place in a setting that is both Western and steampunk.
It's a setup that seems like it has the potential to get very overwhelming, very quickly.
But it doesn't.
The situation is most precarious during the first third of the novel, during which each of these characters gets his or her own narrative thread, and the pattern of the plot has not yet emerged. It's not clear how anything fits together, and each individual story seems like it could be enough to carry things forward, all on its own.
But as the novel progresses, things start to come together. Characters meet up, take sides, and slowly, their stories start to twine together until a clear conflict between "Good" and "Evil" emerges. Monk's characters are complicated enough, however, and given enough hints of backstory that the novel resists moral certainty, instead offering up an ambiguity that is provocative and intriguing.
The novel's setting, too, ends up being an asset to the narrative, rather than a liability. Just like the best TV show in history, the Western setting of Dead Iron underscores themes of lawlessness, the potential of the frontier, and the possibility of starting over. And the steampunk elements of the novel provide a physical representation of the Strange--an unsettling, magical force that threatens the stability of the small town of Hallelujah, Oregon. Instead of clashing with each other, the Western and steampunk elements of the setting work together to subtly reinforce important elements of the plot.
That said, I still did find myself wishing, at times, that there were fewer characters, so that I could feel like I really understood at least one of them. For each of the main characters--even the bad guy--the backstory that Monk provides is really interesting, but only barely sketched in. We have one character who's an orphan, one who feels guilt over the death of a sibling, one who's been banished, and one who is being pulled away from Hallelujah by supernatural vows. But that's about all that we know. In each of these cases, I would like to know more.
Sure, we see at the end of the novel the potential for a sequel, and there is hope that at least some of the questions about where some of these characters have come from will be answered. But I can't help but wonder if the novel--and the setup for the sequel--would be stronger if Monk had split the narrative into fewer threads, or if she had taken the time to develop one or two of the characters a bit more. Rather than feeling like every character is stuck in his or her past, perhaps I would then be more invested in where they are going in the future.