The Forever Engine by Frank Chadwick is a genre bender novel that mixes equal parts steampunk, alternate history, science fiction, and fantasy to create something new and interesting. Please understand going into this read that Mr. Chadwick co-created a role playing game called Space: 1889, and this novel is set in the steampunk world of that game. In fact, this book is very much like a Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novel in that it almost serves as a walk through of the role playing world, giving a reader fantastic details of this alternative reality Victorian England of Space: 1889 and its vast history. Do not think, however, that this book is all source book material, because it definitely has a fast paced and action filled story. In fact, the plot lines move forward so fast that it reads more like a movie screen play than a book, and some reviewers description of The Forever Engine as a “gritty and raw work” is probably very accurate.
The book begins with Jack Fargo, ancient history professor, being called in as a consultant on a secret experiment being conducted in England. Even though Jack is just there to consult on a mysterious Roman coin, he gets caught up in an unfortunate accident that sends him shooting backwards through time to the year 1888. However, not only has Jack slipped backward in time but he has also left our reality for a parallel one.
Once our brave professor regains his bearing, he finds himself in an alternative turn of the century Victorian England, where the South has won the American Civil War, flying steamships dominate the skies, space travel is an accepted part of every day life, and there is even an earth colony on Mars. Not only that, but Jack immediately finds himself immersed in a convoluted political situation, forced to choose sides in this world’s conflicts, and finds himself actively fighting to save this world from its own problems – even as he desperately seeks a way back to his own time.
Overall, this book is just what I assumed it would be: an action adventure tale wrapped in the standard steampunk surroundings of steamships, gadgets, airships, and Victorian England with more than a dash of intrigue added. The characters in The Forever Engine were mostly interesting, even if they were a bit one dimensional at times, and Mr. Chadwick does a good job of adding in famous people from the time period albeit changing them enough to suite their alternative reality world. The action sequences in the book were adequately described, and a measure of suspense was maintained throughout the novel. However, where Mr. Chadwick excels is in the massive amount of history and background material that he provides about this wonderful steampunk world. Here a reader is given vast amounts of information on the world, its history, and its weapons of war until the setting becomes as real to you as our own modern day reality.
With all that being said, I had some issues with The Forever Engine that I’d like to explore briefly. Feel free to stop now and not have to read anything negative about this novel if it is a favorite of yours. If, after carefully consideration on your part, you decide to continue reading, please do not get upset by any criticisms you might see in the next few paragraphs, because – like Stephen King at the end of The Dark Tower Saga – I am warning you that you might not like the ending here.
1) Jack is way over powered and his skill set too conveniently correct for his adventure. I realize that this might seem a strange complaint to make, but let me explain what I mean. You see, it was just chance that brought Jack Fargo to the secret laboratory on that fateful day when he was sent back in time, but in all honest, it must have been fate, because no other time traveler could have been more suited for the trip ahead. Who else except for Jack Fargo would have had the exact sort of skills that he needed to survive in this alternative steampunk world? I can’t think of anyone. And not only does Jack survive but he excels. I mean, once he is in the alternative world, Jack uses his vast knowledge of history, physics, political persons, era specific military equipment, and his linguistic ability to survive and vanquish his enemies. All I can say is Thank God the lab “accident” happened when a man so immensely suited to this time traveling predicament just happened to be there. I mean, think what would have happened if the janitor had been sent back through time.
2) Setting aside the issue of Jack’s skill set for a moment, let us turn to his characterization in this novel. Basically, Jack is your classic Hollywood action adventure hero. This guy pops out of nowhere claiming he is from an alternative world, but instead of being labeled crazy or whatever, he is quickly accepted into the “cool” group. Not only is Jack in the cool group of people, but somehow, he is also the smartest guy in the group, the toughest guy in the group, the guy with the most modern, enlightened sensibilities, and the cool guy who gets the most beautiful, bad ass female as his girlfriend. I mean, Jack has it made. How could he fail?
3) This novel is told from Jack’s first person perspective. I generally do not like first person narratives. It is a personal issue I have. Now, I admit that there have been first person narratives that I have liked (See Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns,) but most of the time, I find these types of novels disappointing. Unfortunately, The Forever Engine was one of the first person narratives I did not enjoy. Just one of those things, I suppose.
4) As I mentioned above, this novel is filled to overflowing with details about this richly imagined steampunk world. As a lover of history and alternative history, I adore this sort of stuff. However, an author has to walk a fine line when spoon feeding a reader vast quantities of lore, because if you provide too much the book readers like a role playing campaign source book, and to me, Mr. Chadwick went past this unseen line, becoming so determined to regurgitate facts that the actual plot and characters became lost in the world building.
Even with its many problems, I decided to give The Forever Engine three stars. It is probably closer to 2 ½ stars, but I am giving Mr. Chadwick credit for the marvelous alternate universe he has dreamed up. This imaginative world is well worth reading about, and hopefully, in the next story, the main character will not be so “over powered” and have to actually struggle with the problems facing him. All in all, the novel is a solid first book in a new series (Does anyone actually believe this is a one shot?) and it definitely has potential going forward.
Netgalley and the publisher provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.