Peacemaker, by Lindsay Buroker, is the third story in her Flash Gold series, a steam-punk adventure set in the Yukon gold rush. The protagonist is Kali, a half-Han/half-white female MacGuyver. She's clever and crotchety and brave and vulnerable. In the first book she becomes partners with Cedar, a sword-and-gun-wielding bounty hunter. He's mysterious and wise and fierce and a little crazy and socially awkward to complement her craziness and socially awkwardness. I love them both. Instead of novels, each installment in this series is a short story or novella, so the episodes are fairly light and fun, with larger arcs that carry over the stories and action that's solved with a mixture of derring do and improvised engineering.
In a lot of ways, this story was a good addition to the series. The the action was fun, the writing is good, the main characters are great, the inventions are inventive, and the setting is cool.
I have two beefs however.
The first is with the world building. Now, don't get me wrong. It's a rollicking setting with fun details. And she infuses enough richness to it that her steam punk world feels like it's own distinct place. The problem is that after three stories, it still feels a like a bubble setting. I don't have a real sense of how the world got to be the way it is or how it fits into the rest of the world, despite the fact that other places in the world are mentioned.
For example, there are a couple mentions of medicine men and native american witches who have some sort of magical powers (no real detail on that). But those people don't seem to be any different from real life medicine men and women accused of witches other than to give us flash gold. And other than that, there's no integration of magic into the rest of her world. That level of world-building was okay for the first story, because it's a short story and I don't want Buroker to spend so much time explaining the setting that it takes away from the story. But three stories in, we've gotten a chance to look around a bit, and it still feels like magic is just plopped into one place in her world and doesn't affect anything else. And that's just odd. I'd think that some people having magic powers would affect the world in a bunch of ways. Maybe regular people would be more superstitious or prejudiced against magic users or maybe magic users would occupy certain roles that aren't available in our world, or there would be a bunch of charlatans pretending to have power, or, I don't know, a bunch of possibilities. But about the only possibility I don't swallow is that you'd be able to change such a fundamental part of world (some people can do real magic) and the only difference is that now there's flash gold, which only Kali has.
To give another example, Kali and other tinkerers can do all sorts of crazy engineering, but the world as a whole is not any different than our real world. It seems like there are a few crazy fun things inserted (we don't just have outlaw gangs riding horses, we have sky pirates riding zeppelins!), but it doesn't seem like it makes that much of a difference - it just adds flavor. And that also seems odd or inconsistent. Unless you posit something like that the crazy engineering ability is so recent that it hasn't had a chance to really change history yet, I would expect the world to be a bit more different than our real one. In particular, it seems like there are no changes to the culture or institutions or history or anything.
This isn't a huge problem with me because it's still a fun world and the story is meant to be fairly light-weight, but from reading her Emperor's Edge series, it's clear to me she has the ability to do more extensive and consistent world building, so that aspect of it is a bit of a disappointment. I'd love to see her really let loose on the premise.
The other beef I have is that it just doesn't feel like anything important happened in the story. Over all, it feels very much like an interstitial story, rather than a building block story. I don't always need a short story to move the the plot arcs forward. If it's an interstitial story in the middle of a bunch of novels, then I can just appreciate it as a nice little gift from the author to tide me over until the next major installment. But when the whole series is short stories, then I want each one to contribute to moving the things forward or else it feels like I'm being strung along a little bit. I want each story to be an important one that needs to be told in the overall context of the series.
The first story (Flash Gold) was important because it told the story of how Kali and Cedar met and started working together, as well as being the point where Kali learned she was being hunted. It was a solid beginning. The second one (Hunted) was important because it was the story of how they opened up to each other and started having a romantic relationship.
Now we're on the third one, and I feel like we have a few good possible threads for turning it into a significant point in Kali or Cedar's lives, but none of them went anywhere in this story. There's a little more about Kali and Cedar's back story, but none of the reveals significantly color our perception of them as characters, nor do they affect their relationship. The relationship between Kali and Cedar sort of had some tension that never got too tense and was easily resolved, and the relationship between them also didn't progress. I thought we might go somewhere with the introduction of Tadzi, but he just has a cameo. I thought maybe we'd get farther along with the Cudgel arc, but, other than knowing he's in the area (which we already knew) and that we now know that he knows about Cedar and Kali, nothing really happened there. There's the possibility for some emotional growth from Kali as she faces her Han past and deals with her issues from that, but no actual emotional growth happened. In the epilogue, she's a hero for the Han and the town and so it's possible that this will be will be important because it's the time when her relationship to the world changed, but that's not really explored either.
I don't know.
We get another installment, but I don't feel like it accomplished much. It's fun and frothy, but we're in the same place that we started. I'm still glad that I read the story because it's a cool adventure, and I'm still going to buy the next one when it comes out, but I hope that overall Buroker will balance this one out with a bit more depth or forward progress in the next installment. I'm afraid of this turning into an adventure-of-the-week style series where every installment has a new contraption, but is otherwise a rehash of the same basic plot and static relationships and characters and world. I'd rather a Buffy the Vampire Slayer approach where there may be monsters every week, but you want to see them all because they tell a story together that has significant plot movement, world-building, and character growth.