A door along the wall slid upward, revealing two bulky figures in a shadowy cubby. Gears whirred, and a pair of four-legged mechanical constructs clanked out. Though comprised of a patchwork of spare parts and metal scraps, they had cohesive, canine forms. And they were big.
Centring around a thousand dollar dogsled race (and the protagonist, Kali’s steam powered “dogless sled”), Lindsay Buroker’s Flash Gold tells an interesting story in a Steampunk setting, but without relying excessively on zany machines to move the plot along. The handful of devices that play a part are all introduced neatly and in just the right place, adding a well measured touch of fantasy to the setting rather than completely overwhelming it.
Clarke’s Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Flash Gold simplifies things somewhat by actually including a modicum of magic. Set in an alternate Canada at the end of the Nineteenth Century, this novella features a local population who don’t quite trust Kali and her uncanny affinity for machines, suspecting her of witchcraft. This sets up an interesting situation where, though advanced steam technology is widely available, it hasn’t yet been fully accepted by everyone. Whether or not this is the case outside the “backward” little town of Moose Hollow isn’t entirely clear, but it certainly makes for a great introduction to the setting and leaves me wondering what sorts of people and places will appear in later books in the series.
That said, one of the nicest things about this book is how well it stands up on its own. The plot reaches a neat conclusion that leaves you wanting—rather than needing—more, leaving the story open ended but, for the moment, complete. If anything about the novella broadcasts the fact that this is not a one-off, it’s the characters: Kali is not just some random person off the street who gets dragged into an adventure. That happened long ago, and she’s been trying to get out of the adventure ever since (a refreshing change from the norm). At the very beginning of the book, at least, there is a sense that the main characters are just a little too large for the 18,000 words or so that they occupy. I certainly wouldn’t consider this to be a bad thing, but I’m not sure that it’s good, either. If you pick up Flash Gold expecting the first in a series, it shouldn’t bother you at all. If you expect a self-contained novella, it’s still not really going to detract from the story.
Flash Gold is free and can be found in a variety of formats at Smashwords (it’s also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). The other books in the series are not free but, if Flash Gold is anything to go by, should be well worth the price.