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Before we begin this review, we would like to take a moment and admit that we are not big fans of Steampunk. A previous experience with this genre was so awful that, up until now, we had sworn off the genre entirely. This one book managed to open our mind to the genre again, which is why we loved it so much.The book is comprised of several adventures–more like short stories–which center on the plucky crew of an “airship” (that is, a dirigible or blimp). It takes place in the 1880s (according to the preface) in a region of Kenya, Africa, which is being colonized by the British. The railroads in the area only reach a certain distance into the African frontier; after that, everything is “beyond the rails,” and only accessible by air. That’s where our crew and their airship come in, for they have the one thing that everyone needs: mobility. This means that they need to be ready for anything–and everything–that they can encounter, both inside civilization and out. Each story lets us get to know a member of the crew a little better, as we get to see them act alone and interact together. By the end, the book changes gears and moves into a connected narrative, with each chapter starting to add to a larger plot. Unfortunately that plot ends in mid-swing–but the fortunate thing about this is that this also means that there is more to come in future installments...THE GOOD…1) Vibes: Rudyard Kipling, Indiana Jones, and Cowboys & IndiansRight away, the moment the story begins, we found ourself having a “Western Adventure” kind of vibe. Instead of the American southwest, it was the African frontier. Instead of Cowboys and Indians, it was the Airship Crew and the Africans. Each chapter was a complete story of its own, so we kept experiencing new adventures with every turn of the page. There was a rough-and-tumble, get-yer-guns-ready, we’re-riding-(flying)-into-town sort of feeling in these tales, and we enjoyed the blend of safari story and Wild West. Add to this the fact that most of the characters were not American (there is one person from the USA), then it also becomes a British Cowboy story. Throw in some colonialist themes and there’s Rudyard Kipling waiting in the background, too. Add a dash (a small dash) of magic, and bigger countries’ struggles (English and Prussian strain), and suddenly Indiana Jones is dancing around. In short, anyone who loves the old-fashioned adventure tale will love this book.2) Great castThe cast of characters was very flavorful and unique. Each character both embodied a stereotype and possessed his own unique flair, which really allowed us to picture them in our mind. The thing about each of these characters is that we’re given time to spend with each of them. They are each given a portion of the story to themselves, and we get to follow them around, get a feel for them as individuals, and see a little about what makes them tick. This is a wonderful way to become invested in their fates throughout the story. We really liked how different they all were, and yet how they all functioned together as a single unit: the intrepid crew of the airship Kestrel.3) Portrayal of womenThe women in this story were both strong… and feminine. This is not a story where a woman who had to give up being female in order to be taken seriously. Our favorite female character, Patience Hobbs, is allowed to show a softer, more feminine side: she sticks up for those who need a helping hand (like Ellsworth), and she in general acts more like a tough woman than a man’s man, and nobody holds this against her or thinks that she’s below them because of it. The woman in this story were three-dimensional and well used throughout the plot.4) Saves the magic… until laterOne thing we first thought about this story was that it took its time. The book handled the eventual introduction of magic (!) and super-science (!) with a great deal of finesse and subtlety. By the time the first hints of magic appeared on the page, we were so engrossed with the characters that we were not confused by it–in fact, if anything, we were thrilled. It made sense, given the context of everything that had happened previously, and it added new flavor to the story. It takes about one half of the way through the book before magic is brought into the picture. And super-science–or at least its 1800’s equivalent–only appeared about three-fourths of the way into the book. We suppose that the sequel would have these things in much larger proportions, but truth is we wouldn’t mind that very much. We were permitted to learn the characters and the normal world’s customs before we went running off into the great wild unknown of sorcery and science, which is good enough for us.THE BAD…1) Incomplete endingDespite all the awesomeness in this book, it does end on an unfinished note. Again, some people will like this, and we (kind of) can’t begrudge it, because it means that there will definitely be more stories in the future. All the same, we like when a book ends with a completed plot, not halfway through the major arc of the next book. It sounds good and it ends on an intriguing note, but a cliffhanger is still a cliffhanger. Arg! We’re not rock climbers, so we’ve got to mention this. :(THE BIZARRE…1) Dirigibles… er, we mean blimps… uh, actually make that “airships”The story concerns a lot of dirigibles, as one can guess (hey, the title is “Beyond the Rails,” and only dirigibles–or “airships”–can really travel that far). The characters actually go into detail explaining how these massive contraptions work, which is awesome. A large part of the plot concerns them and how they fly, the mechanics of how travel like this affects the characters, and so forth. This must have been the result of a lot of research and it was fascinating for us, given that blimps aren’t really things that we know (or think) that much about. We’re definitely noticing the Goodyear blimp next time it hovers around our house.…AND THE VERDICT:This book is GOOD.We have to say, this book single-handedly convinced us to reconsider our dislike of Steampunk. This is a feat all by itself. And with that, we can’t say that it’s anything but Good, even though it has plenty of Bizarreness everywhere–which, of course, just adds flavor to the whole shebang. And, best news of all, according to the author’s blog, he’s also already hard at work on the sequel, and has the eighth “short story / next chapter” posted online as a FREE SAMPLE. We hope this means that it will be done soon, so we can continue the adventure. In a single book we’ve gone from hating Steampunk to giving it a second chance, so we have big expectations for the upcoming sequel.

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