Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.
So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.
After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself. When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,
“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”
And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.
This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.
Now, I am used to reading all sorts of different types of writing. I’ve read and enjoyed: epic fantasy, classic works, epic poetry, essay collections, time travel romance (yes, really), biographies, YA fiction, and short story collections. However, before reading City of the Saints, I had only read two steampunk novels and only finished about two and a half novels that had originally been published in serial format. I mention this not to laud my own varied tastes or apologize for my own ignorance in other genres. I mention this because my lack of experience with steampunk and serial-esque novels caused me to make some serious mistakes when I first began to read City of the Saints. When I started, I dove headfirst into the book, trying to consume it all at once. Which, since this book is essentially cake, caused some “digestive issues.”
The first digestive issue came from the fact that this is a hardcore steampunk tale. Meaning that Mr. Butler has taken history and fiddled with it. But he doesn’t fiddle with it in the same way that most other alternate history genres fiddle with history. For example, in time travel romance, there is always at least one character who looks at the world with a modern perspective. Thus, the audience has a character who can help filter information for them and often receives detailed explanations about the past from other characters. With steampunk, there is no such filter. All the characters are firmly grounded in their world. More than that, though, these characters are grounded in a history that is slightly modified from our own. The technology, the historical events, and even the characters aren’t quite how we would find them in the history books.
Just this small lack of a filter and the minor adjustment to historical fact gives the reader a responsibility not often present in other types of fiction. First off, you need to have an understanding of archaic technology. For example, in this book, Mr. Butler refers heavily to “Phlogiston.” Now, I had never heard of phlogiston theory when I started reading this book. I plunged ahead for a while, but when I finally gave in and looked up just what phlogiston was, the book read easier. Likewise, a reader unfamiliar with Sam Clemens or John D. Lee, would miss out on quite a bit of clever satire and, in the case of Lee, poetic justice.
Of course, it isn’t just that the characters and little pieces of technology need to be understood. Unless you have a basic grasp of pre-civil war politics, the Mormon pioneers, and the culture of the Wild West, you miss the main point of why this book is so cool. In real history, the Mormons fled the United States because many people considered them to be a threat to their way of life. One of the main reasons they saw the Mormons as a threat was that many thought that Mormons had abolitionist leanings. Of course, the saints were too poor, beaten down, and few in number to really be a force in politics or war. And not every Mormon was an abolitionist by any means. So, in real history, when the Mormons fled and didn’t come back to attack anyone (here, I acknowledge one notable exception), the United States pretty much left the Mormons alone. The Mormons didn’t have enough power to play any role in the conflict. In City of the Saints, the Mormons not only have the power to play a role, their clout could be enough to decide the war. It’s an awesome concept that I’m sure would stir the heart of any Latter-day Saint. If you want to truly understand the brilliance of this book, you have to work.
Now the second issue I had with digesting this book is the pacing. It reads very much like the old serials, especially those of Jules Verne. The prose is clever and fun, but takes its time with description and word-play. Some readers might find the prose to be wordy. However, those who enjoy reading Jules Verne or even modern epic fantasy won’t have any trouble with the writing style. Another aspect of serial-like writing is chapter structure. For the most part, each chapter reads like its own little cliff-hanger story. It’s a nice nod to the writers who had to keep their readers’ hooked for one more week. Of course, I love a cliffhanger, but it was sometimes emotionally exhausting to watch all the mounting action not come to a resolution by the chapter’s end.
Also, like other serial-type stories, the author takes time to dwell on the history and the science. This is where it gets especially cake-y. Though Butler doesn’t take nearly so long on descriptions of Zion or the history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre as Victor Hugo takes to recreate Waterloo, there’s still a fair amount of reveling in historical occurrences , oddities and (because this a steampunk alternative history) moments that deviate from actual history. This blatant reveling is awesome if you love history (and I do). For those who want to get quickly away from description and world-building and into the action, the pace might seem slow.
With the unusual pacing and the need to look up historical facts, characters, and even archaic scientific theories, my reading speed suffered. I admit that I was frustrated at first, but every time I came across a fact I already knew, met a character I recognized, or caught how this alternate history tweaked the past, I felt a zing of excitement and pleasure. What really made me enjoy the book, though, was the dialogue. It’s clever and fun and keeps you reading, even during its slower parts. Kind of like frosting.
Reading City of the Saints is an investment of time and effort. I can’t lie. However, I would say that the book is more than worth the investment. The rich history, the descriptive prose, and the witty banter make this a great romp in an imaginative alternate past. Enjoy your cake.