My Rating: 6/10
The Clarity of Cold Steel follows detective Avinash Singh as he is hired to find a missing boy in the dark and gritty world of Mortise Locke—the Machine City. The author presents a noir-inspired steampunk setting with a mix of interesting worldbuilding elements such as derelict boats turned into sharecropping farms, the Indian caste system, and a leprosy-like plague.
Wright has a strong writing style that fits the atmosphere of the story. Especially noteworthy is the dialogue, which was consistently purposeful and interesting, and gave each character distinct voices.
I'll say one thing for this book, it's got a very unique style. First, the writing style itself is very strong and gives the story a heavy atmosphere. Then there's the dialogue, which was generally quite engaging throughout the book. All the characters talk like 1940s American detectives, saying things like "What's the smoke?" and "Everything's jake."
I actually have a semi-serious in-world theory about: that this is actually an alternate history steampunk set in the 1940s. There are difference engines, the cops have Lugers, people have cogwork implants and there are other steampunk aesthetics. It would explain the characters' accents too. The other explanation is that the author really just wanted to write noir-style dialogue.
I only bring this up because the book only started feeling like science fiction during the climax of the book. Suddenly there were ultralight gliders and rockets, which resulted in some exciting action but felt a bit incongruous with the rest of the book's worldbuilding. I think if you go into this expecting a grimdark noir fantasy, you might have a better time than if you're expecting sci-fi.
Regardless of its genre, I found the book struggled a bit with pacing and a lack of depth for the main character. Avinash's motivations seem to be limited to getting paid and the injustice of being in the lowest caste, but there's not much more. Because of that, the emotional impact of some of the events were diminished.
The only other critique I have is that something about the setting was hard to picture. I think there were two reasons for this.
First, the description of the Machine City was often interspersed with completely unrelated dialogue, making my brain try to do two things at once—picture the city and follow the conversation. As my mental faculties are limited, I would have rather seen the descriptive prose just broken out into a solid paragraph so I can immerse myself in the city for a bit before jumping back into plot movement.
Second, there was an abundance of detail provided, but it was often abstract description, sometimes owing to the author's adherence to that strongly noir-styled prose that relies on lots of metaphors. Because of the lack of concrete details, I felt I was left with an incomplete picture of Mortise Locke, which is a shame. After all, what I was able to glean from it was really interesting! I just wish I could have connected with it more.
Overall, The Clarity of Cold Steel is a competently written book that doesn't quite hit the mark of an exceptional read. Its strong writing style, interesting worldbuilding, and engaging dialogue are counterbalanced by the lack of clarity in its setting and lack of character depth and development. I gave it a 6/10 because I struggled to connect with a lot of it, but if you love grimdark noir there's a solid chance you'll love this one too.
/* Note: This review reflects only my personal opinion of the book, not the opinion of the entire Team Sciencefiction.news */