Sambuciña Ahurra, aka Buc, has few possessions: several knives, which she keeps hidden about her person; the dexterity of a 16-year-old former street urchin, sneak thief and pickpocket; an insatiable and compulsive appetite for books; and a mind so sharp she must dull it with depressant drugs to communicate with other people. Her partner, Eldritch Nelson Rawlings—he goes by Eld, understandably—rescued her from the streets and taught her to read two years ago, and has been following where she leads ever since. In all that time, Buc has never made a mistake. That is, until a miscalculation leads to their arrest by Imperial officers. Within a day, the pair of them have been blackmailed into sailing across an ocean to investigate disappearing sugar shipments, launching them into a hurricane of secretive sorcerers, mythical pirates, gods both dead and living, wild hogs and something called Archaeology, whatever that means.
For all its trappings of detective work and mystery, Ryan Van Loan’s The Sin in the Steel is more Locke Lamora (on the high seas) than Sherlock Holmes. Its frantic pace and continuous action capture the reader, but behind its frenzy lurks a truly fascinating world. The economy of Servenza, the archipelagic empire Buc and Eld call home, with its reliance on sugar, tea and the psychoactive herb kan recalls the colonial European powers of the 18th century. Magic is rare but hardly secret; it is very literally a gift from the gods, and its nature varies with the divine source. The resulting limitations, and the grisly details of its use, allow it to easily coexist with a fascinating mix of flintlock-era gunpowder and borderline-futuristic transportation.
But while such a backdrop is necessary to support the story, the plot might founder were it not for its ceaseless motion and the way the mysteries pile up faster than they can be answered. As a stand-alone story, The Sin in the Steel asks the reader to fill in a great many gaps, especially since it leaves almost every thread outside Buc and Eld’s search for the missing sugar itself untied. In some ways, it’s a novel that requires its readers to moonlight as writers. The frustration of questions left unanswered is, in truth, a playground for the creative, inquisitive reader. Van Loan asks his audience to channel their inner Sambuciña, and richly rewards those who follow through.
The Sin in the Steel is not for those who want to be presented with a prepackaged world; some assembly is required. But that assembly is part of the joy of books like this. The leftover mysteries are carefully crafted to capture the imagination, and the hectic unravelling of schemes and unearthing of secrets are well worth the effort needed to keep pace.