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The Curious Steambox Affair' a near miss

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Steampunk mystery never quite finds its feet

The relative popularity of steampunk as a literary genre makes a good deal of sense. It combines the romanticism of the Victorian era with the trappings of science fiction, resulting in a mash-up to delight history buffs and sci-fi fans alike. The possibilities of a world where major scientific advances are made with the power of steam are myriad.

Of course, having a lot of directions in which to go also means that there are a lot of directions not worth going.

'The Curious Steambox Affair' (InterMix; $2.99 (e-book only)) by Melissa Macgregor is the first in a proposed series of steampunk-flavored mysteries. It is an ambitious attempt especially for a debut novel but one that does not quite reach the heights to which it aspires.

It's the story of one Alistair Purefoy, a physician's assistant who has been called away from his beloved Scottish Highlands (and from his beloved Miss Eugenia Campbell) to Edinburgh, there to serve as the new assistant to one Dr. Ian Hyde, a figure whose medical brilliance, utter misanthropy and royal connections have made him one of the most envied and feared men in all Scotland.

However, when Purefoy finds himself as a bit of an outsider as well at least among Edinburgh's medical community he discovers that despite Hyde's fearsome reputation, he is not particularly difficult to deal with. But when murders start taking place gruesome murders that all appear to have some sort of connection to Purefoy the young physician's assistant finds himself swept up into a world of intrigue unlike anything he had ever experienced in the Highland hills.

Purefoy is soon in the company of a group that calls itself the Merry Gentlemen powerful and intelligent men who have devoted themselves to solving mysteries and undertaking investigations in situations beyond the ken of usual law enforcement techniques. The Merry Gentlemen want to find the man or men behind these murders while hopefully saving young Purefoy in the process.

The story is told almost exclusively from Purefoy's perspective the entire narrative unfolds in the form of letters written and sent to Miss Campbell by Purefoy as he attempts to woo and win her from afar. It's an interesting device; the conversational tone feels reflective, allowing for the subtleties of memory to play their part in how the story is related.

Purefoy is an interesting characterperhaps too interesting. While there is a whiff of the bumbler around him in the beginning, he soon becomes far too capable to feel genuine. He is possessed of a brilliant mind and the purest of hearts while also being incredibly proficient with weaponry and the art of self-defense. He is instantly liked by everyone he encounters (save for when it is convenient to the narrative for him to be disliked). Simply put, he's a bit too perfect.

Hyde is a bit more of an interesting case; his general cantankerous disregard for others makes him a bit more engaging, but here too, Purefoy is too much. Despite the fact that nearly everyone in Edinburgh either hates or fears Hyde, Purefoy simply smiles his way through. The rest of the Gentlemen feel more like rough sketches than fully realized characters Dog Benge, the American Cherokee, is the exception to this rule; there's something there.

'The Curious Steambox Affair' is indeed curious. These books featuring the Merry Gentlemen could well prove to be a long-running and engaging series. This first installment, however, indicates that there is much work still to be done. Fans of historical romance and/or the steampunk genre will likely enjoy this book, but it will take more to gain the attention of readers outside those niches.

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