Beyond The Rails, by Jack Tyler
A few years ago, I became a member of the Steampunk Empire, an online community dedicated to steampunk. It was there that I came across a post from a member who called himself Blimprider. A steampunk writer like myself, Blimprider was the alias of Jack Tyler, whose discussion (entitled “Why I Write”) intrigued me enough that I later followed him to his own Steampunk Empire group, Scribblers’ Den. It also prompted me to add his work to my goodreads list. Why it’s taken me so long to finally get to reading his work can only be explained by the fact that I’m a slow reader. I’m hopeful that Jack won’t mind me quoting his discussion from the Empire.
I was a child of the 50s, which means that I just caught the tail end of the old Victorian mores and attitudes as they were being swept out to make room for the modern era of snatchin’ and grabbin’, of “Me first, and eff you!” I miss those times. More to the point, as a lifelong avid reader, I did my formative reading in the genre of adventure books for boys. This was at a time when villains were slimy, ladies had elegance, and the hero had perfect teeth…and since it’s fairly obvious that no one else is going to write them, I’m making it my business to do it. And here’s the funny thing: Unless a few dozen total strangers who don’t know each other are lying through their teeth for no other reason than to boost my ego, everyone who reads these stories, and takes the time to leave a comment or write a review, LOVES them! I am humbled, honored, and blown away by turns. I had no idea that something so obsolete could strike such a chord with so many diverse people.
This nostalgia for those adventure books for boys is evident in Tyler’s writing, and it’s a joy to read. It has an old-world feeling that recalls Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, and Rudyard Kipling, but which manages to feel fresh and modern at the same time. It has a similar feeling to Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, with its fast pace, its character-driven narrative, its “steampunk light” approach to the genre, and – without the silliness of Carriger’s series – its excellent use of witty banter between the characters. Also, like the Parasol Protectorate series, Beyond The Rails often sees the story’s heroes traveling from place to place aboard an airship, unraveling mysteries, and kicking ass.
The females are strong, but not masculine, and their personalities are nuanced and believable. The male characters are equally compelling; they have rich backstories, which are introduced to us from multiple viewpoints, which allows the reader to form their own opinions, as well as their own favourite characters. Personally, I’m a big fan of Clinton Monroe, the ship’s captain, and Patience Hobbs, her pilot, and I love the banter between them.
You want African steampunk? You’ve got it!
Jules Verne meets Firefly in this series of tales by a new voice on the steampunk landscape. Join this group of misfits, castoffs, and fugitives as they try to make a living moving cargo in Colonial Africa on their ramshackle blimp, the Kestrel, in the face of everything an untamed land can throw at them.
Beyond The Rails is a collection of short stories that follow the Kestrel crew through a series of rugged adventures set in Kenya. It’s a format I’m not used to, and it felt a bit like the literary equivalent of episodic television. The binge-worthy kind. The stories do follow a continuity, with several of them ending with just enough of a cliffhanger to get me reading the next story. It’s the perfect format – and the stories are the perfect length – for bus trip reading, although I must admit that each time I opened up the book to read, I was in serious danger of missing my stop. I can be a tough reader to impress; the slightest misstep can take me right out of the moment and spoil my suspension of disbelief. One wrong word, one grammar error, that’s all it takes. And yet, Beyond The Rails had me forgetting that I wasn’t actually aboard an airship in Colonial Africa.
Tyler’s writing style is straight-forward, unpretentious, and effortless to read. It’s also clearly researched very thoroughly. It’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t actually build his own Kestrel and fly it through Nairobi and Mombasa before putting pen to paper. The airship terminology seems to follow nautical jargon, which makes sense, especially given the airship’s design; it’s basically a riverboat suspended beneath a blimp. The “science” is never over-explained; instead, the reader is simply shown a device in action and allowed to form their own understanding of how it works.
As for the negatives, they were few and far between, but I will admit that the phonetic spelling in some of the character dialogue was at times a distraction.
I also would have liked to have seen more African characters, especially one who was a member of the crew; it takes place in Africa, after all. Of course, the Africans are portrayed sympathetically. Just like the caucasian cast, the Africans are intelligent and nuanced – not all of them are good nor are all of them bad – and those who make ignorant assumptions about them are quickly put in their place (usually by Patience Hobbs). All in all, this was one of the most diverse casts I’ve had the pleasure of reading, with characters from America, England, Kenya, Prussia, China, Australia, and other equally exotic locales.
This book deserves to be read
It’s worth mentioning that Beyond the Rails is self-published. It’s a testament to Jack Tyler’s skill as a writer that it’s as polished as it is. I’ve read books from major publishers that weren’t nearly as polished. In this day and age, where any old idiot with a computer can upload their stories to amazon and hit the publish button, it isn’t a mistake to be wary of self-published stories. The best way to weed out those books that don’t deserve to see the light of day? Read the reviews. You’ll see I’m not the only one who loved reading Beyond The Rails.
I can confidently recommend Beyond The Rails to any steampunk enthusiast, lover of adventure stories, or simply anyone who enjoys a good story. Don’t believe me? See for yourself! You can read the first story for free. As for me, I can’t wait to grab myself a copy of Beyond the Rails II!