Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Zervakan by Rob Steiner

Zervakan book coverReason and science gave the Recindian Compact wonders like steam engines, telegraphs, and gunpowder. The world had order. It made sense.

Until one night two multi-colored bands of light split the sky, spanning the horizons like rings around the planet. Soon after, unnatural storms assaulted the Compact's cities. Whispers spread of ghoulish creatures haunting Compact forests. And then a message from a legendary race called the Mystics - "ally with us to fight the growing evil, or we all perish."

The Compact's desperate leaders turn to disgraced history professor Taran Abraeu. Taran spent years searching in vain for the ancient healing magic of the Mystics to save his dying daughter. His family and colleagues once mocked him. Now his research might save them.

When the Compact asks Taran to accompany a secret delegation to the Mystic homeland, he is swept up in an adventure that forces him to fight a horrifying enemy that only he among all his people can comprehend.

I discovered today that I reviewed this on GoodReads in 2013, but didn't cross post it here. I've decided to make up for that oversight.

Full Disclosure: I was the editor for this book. You can discount what I have to say here in this review but hear me out. I think what I have to say might still sway you.

You can read the description for what the book is about. I'm here to tell you that Steiner did a fantastic job. The world in Zervakan is a clever juxtaposition of one civilization which relies on primitive technology but is well-versed in magic (the Mystics of Beldamark) while the one in which our protagonist hails from is comparatively advanced: muskets, steam engines, and the telegraph. It would've been easy for Steiner to take a side, i.e. "technology is evil" or "faith is for fools." Instead, he shows that there are good points about both systems, and neither has a monopoly of short-sighted dogmatists. His point is that both sides must learn to work together to overcome an evil that is stronger than either one can handle on its own.

Steiner excels at characterization. They're real. Young characters are passionate but lack the wisdom that comes with experience. Older characters are stuck in their ways. Tarn makes for an excellent protagonist: His daughter is his Achilles' heel, and he struggles to make the right decisions. Fatimah wrestles with trusting Tarn, the outsider who has embraced mysticism despite his Compact upbringing, and obeying the wisdom of her elders. Speaker of the Compact, Dylan Edoss (my favorite character), is forced into having an open mind with regards to the Mystics because he realizes cooperation is the only way to protect his people, but that very open-mindedness leaves him vulnerable to his political enemies. Even Steiner's minor characters and villains defy the cookie cutter mold. I even want to root for Karak, a villain with a conscience.

Even before I was Steiner's editor, I was a fan of his storytelling (See The Last Key and Aspect of Pale Night). He's able to construct a highly believable world that is easy to get caught up in. There's just enough detail: enough to believe you're there in the world he's constructed but not too much that you drown in minutiae. And he's able to conjure up horrors in this land that would fit right in with Lovecraft. My favorite scene is when Steiner plays homage to the Master while Taran and Dylan ride a train to meet with the Mystics. If I say anything more, it will count as a spoiler, so I won't.

So I hope that, despite my obvious prejudice, you'll check out Zervakan, a fantasy vs. steampunk mashup, lightly seasoned with Lovecraftian horrors. At the very least, check out the sample chapters to see Steiner in action. You won't be disappointed.


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