While fantasy, science fiction, and their subgenres are no stranger to mystery, it is a fairly rare occurrence to see them combined with noir. So when Patty Loofbourrow told me that her steampunk book, Jacq of Spades was also a noir, I was intrigued. Noir has its own special requirements, some of the most important of which include the fact that our hero is definitely not a hero. The protagonist is an outsider in the world in which they find themselves. And this world, make no mistake, is crumbling. Noir fiction focuses on the often fatalistic idea that the good guys rarely win. Things are darker than they appear and that darkness is ever encroaching. However, our protagonist is not necessarily fighting against this darkness, as many mystery-solvers—even the ones in the speculative fiction genres—are, but is merely trying to survive it.
This, I thought, would be very interesting. A lot of fantasy and science fiction is very much about the “good guy” standing up against the “bad guy” and trying to improve the world. Jacq of Spades, though, has all the elements that you would expect from a steampunk novel. Worldbuilding. Stunning technology. Characters and a society straight out of Victorian England. Make no mistake, though. It is noir through and through.
The world in which we find ourselves is Bridges, a domed city that is divided into four quadrants, each ruled by a crime family. Our main character is Jacqueline, the wife of the heir to the Spadros family. She was an outsider, raised in what equates to the slums, and groomed to be the perfect wife for the Spadros heir. Jacquie, though, is a bit of a rebel. She goes off to the dressmaker and, when no one is looking, solves mysteries. Usually small ones, until she is requested to investigate a missing child.
Things spiral quickly into darkness, with our main character—an anti-hero if ever I saw one, yet with all the sass of a femme fatale—drawn into scandal, secrets, and conspiracies.
This book is not at all what I expected. I haven’t read noir fiction in a long time, so I half believed that this would be overwhelmed by the mystery. It was not. Instead, we are drawn into a world that is creatively built. We discover the world through the thoughts of our narrator, the main character (incidentally, noir is often first-person, but that’s besides the point) and she does a wonderfully imperfect job of seeing things. We are tantalised with tidbits that are probably very important, but not really touched on more than once or twice. The prose is individual and flows well, making Jacqueline pop off the page. And the worldbuilding itself is exactly what I would expect of a steampunk novel, with one exception: the drawbacks of Victorian society are purposefully mentioned.
As far as the mystery goes, it is very interesting. This has the feeling of an epic fantasy, where the tiny details turn out to be incredibly important in a world-changing sort of way. However, in true mystery fashion, those threads are woven together to form a picture that our protagonist must solve. She doesn’t, necessarily, gather all the pieces to put everything together, but this is only book one.
As a steampunk book, this one is a great example. The technology is precisely what you would expect. Steampunk novels, technology aside, also tend to be a bit more romantic than your average science-fiction or fantasy novel. And by romantic, I do not mean romance, though that may be a factor. I mean the Romanticists, like Byron or Keats, who focus on the world around them (usually with nature, though in steampunk this is technology) and have a more singular devotion to the essential thoughts and pieces that make up humankind. It is a little nostalgic, though this is not a complete description. Jacq of Spades is nostalgic, but not for the Victorian era. It is nostalgic for the things lost in childhood, for innocence. This, combined with the technology, make a singular impression on noir fiction.
My main critique for this work is that the internal monologue was a bit difficult to understand at times, particularly when Mrs. Spadros jumped through time in her thoughts. However, this is part of what makes the story so intriguing; we don’t know everything and must piece the important pieces together. I would suggest a slightly tighter focus on verbs when referring to or jumping from a different time.
Overall, I would say that this story is incredibly well done. It takes a look at the darker side of life without necessarily crossing the line into dark fantasy/sci-fi. The combination of noir and steampunk is not one that I would have expected, but it works quite well to create a story that is in-depth and interesting. As a reader, I really enjoy learning about the world and the characters. As a writer, I greatly appreciate the deft combination of genres that, on the surface, would not fit together. This book is well written and I enjoyed the adventure. I look forwards to more books from this series (of which I understand there are many).