The Steel Discord by Ryan Howse

(6.5/10) A fun magitech train heist story

Ryan Howse debuts with a story set in a French inspired secondary world. The setting truly shines. From the political realities to the magic system, the setting stands out for its creativity and thoroughness. The Steel Discord, first in A Concerto for the End of Days, is likely to appeal to those who love magic in their fantasy and who likewise enjoy twisty plots. 
 
Both the plot and setting deserve praise in The Steel Discord. Howse gives us some excellent world building in this one. We’re introduced to a world that feels reminiscent of Napoleonic France, but with magitech trains and zepplins instead of horses and steam. I loved the way that the implications of magic were carried through to various aspects of the setting. To me, this is an essential ingredient in fantasy and Howse did an excellent job of ensuring that there was consistency in this regard throughout his world. Magic users do magic through summoning various creatures. Need fire or heat? Summon an ignan (a fire elemental). Need something to do with water? Summon an undine. These creatures can be partially summoned, allowing you to use their power without actually entering the world, or they can be fully summoned into the world and bound to certain tasks. So if you, for instance, wanted a steam powered train but didn’t fancy shoveling coal into a firebox or stopping to refill with water, you could just summon an undine and an ignan and then have the ignan heat the undine and turn it to steam. Perpetually. Howse does a good job of explaining various aspects of the magic system throughout the novel. I loved discovering more about how the magic worked and exactly what it could do as I read. The plot itself was also interesting with plenty of twists to keep you guessing. I thoroughly enjoyed Howse’s use of two timelines, one set roughly six months ahead of the other, that managed not to spoil things but rather increase the mystery of the story. Devoting portions of each chapter to both timelines kept the suspense high for both sections of the story. Coupled with a plot that also kept me guessing, the pacing worked very well.
 
Unfortunately, sometimes that twisting plot got a little too twisty. There were a couple moments in the story when I felt like a twist came a little out of left field. These instances could have been eliminated with a little more foreshadowing. The much larger issue was that I felt the blocking and description, particularly in action sequences, was sometimes confusing. There were multiple occasions when I found myself needing to reread paragraphs or jump back a page or two and try to figure out exactly how the action had culminated in a particular result. This was particularly frustrating because the story was engaging enough that I didn’t particularly want to spend time trying to figure out how characters were seeing something happening in the dark. 
 
Overall, this is a fun magitech train heist story that you’re likely to enjoy if you enjoy strong world building and magic systems. It has some weaknesses, but I look forward to seeing what Howse does next in this world.

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