The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow – Review

Book Jacket:

Emma Bannon, Prime sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t much help that they dislike each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.

In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.

You can read an excerpt here.


Every now and then a book comes along that throws everything at you but the kitchen sink and pulls it off with panache, and The Iron Wyrm Affair is most definitely that kind of book. You’d think a story that has not only magic and dragons and simulacrums, but griffins and clockwork horses and reanimated corpses, and logic machines too, would start to get a little ridiculous, to say the least – but it just works, and more that that, it’s downright fun. A mash-up of Sherlockian mystery and alt-history Urban Fantasy, The Iron Wyrm Affair romps through the streets of London, following our intrepid heroes as they set out to unravel a conspiracy poised to strike at the very heart of England. 

Now with steampunky Victorian fantasy being downright trendy in UF these days, you might be starting to feel a little jaded about the whole sub-genre in general, as these books do tend to run in similar circles – but trust me, this book is something else. The cast of characters in particular surprised me with their distinction: take Clare, the resident genius (or rather, Mentath) of the story – Clare is a character that not only nods at Sherlock Holmes, he’s an out and out homage, and yet Saintcrow still manages to imbue Clare with personality, and individuality. He’s real – never a caricature, never a tired imitation – and I very much enjoyed watching him deduce his way through this story. Similarly, Bannon, the powerful sorceress tasked with protecting him, is very much your classic strong, able UF heroine, but she’s also so much more than that – not only is her magical prowess wonderfully unique, but her vulnerabilities are so very, very interesting, as they tie in to a fascinating backstory, and it all bubbles up in the most interesting ways. This is a lady who is nothing of the sort, however lovely her tea service, and yet she still is very much just that, and it makes for a fascinating bundle of contradiction. And it’s not just these two – the secondary characters are all equally fascinating, from the odd staff of Bannon’s household, to the uncouth Italian who is so much more than he seems, to the Bavarian who loves his sausage so very much, these characters are all, well, characters, each and every one. So yes, the archetypes you may be expecting are very much present and accounted for, but Saintcrow manages to overpower them all by sheer force of personality, and it makes for a highly enjoyable read. 

And I have to say, I particularly enjoyed how the repartee between our leading pair stayed firmly away from the well-worn romantic tread. Rather than the usual opposites attract/partners-who-fall-in-love, Bannon and Clare firmly cast their partnership in the Holmes and Watson mold, and it made for a lot of fun, watching them bump along and rub each other the wrong way, all the while developing a healthy respect for each other – and they earn the trust they have in each other by the end.

As for the plot and world-building, Saintcrow is not one to slow down and explain things – rather this author just throws us into the deep end and expects us to swim – but I really enjoyed how this story fully expected me to pay attention and keep up. Even better, there is no info-dumping whatsoever in this story – indeed the unrelenting pace refuses to slacken long enough to allow it – and instead Saintcrow reveals her world and plot points on the fly, making us work to fill in the gaps between what we see and hear. I liked it, for how it kept me from ever getting ahead of the story, but I actually wouldn’t have minded if Saintcrow had taken a little more time to connect the dots for us – but as the world and conspiracy were so utterly fascinating to explore, I didn’t mind having to stretch my mental legs a bit to keep up. But be prepared, because this book definitely delivers a barrage of sighs and sounds, of creatures and creations, and it’s a lot – and I do mean a lot – to take in. But being neck and neck with the characters as they gallop at breakneck speed through the pages is a hack of a lot of fun.

So yes, this story is hectic and befuddling and bewildering to be sure, but I merrily enjoyed the wild and crazy ride, and it all came together in a very satisfying manner at the end. Plus with a story such as this, verily bursting at the seams, it leaves a wonderful sense of the teaming possibilities for future books to explore, so yes, by all means, bring on the next Clare and Bannon adventure, and sign me up.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly (starred review) says:

Multigenre talent Saintcrow (Angel Town) launches a delicious steampunk alternate London that pays more than a little stylistic homage to Sherlock Holmes, adding additional excitement in the form of magical duels, backstreet chases, battles with giant mecha, and confrontations with ancient wyrms and gryphons…Sensual writing, intricate plotting, and sympathetically quirky, satisfyingly competent characters make this series one to watch.

Kirkus Reviews says:

Intriguing but messy; two of the chief ingredients would have sufficed, four is extreme overkill.

The Book Bag says:

To call this a ‘romp’ through an alternative London would be to drastically understate the pace…A fast and furious ride through an alternate Victorian London that occasionally stops for polite afternoon tea, just to let you catch your breath.