Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book Review - Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier

Steampunk SoldiersBy Philip Smith and Joseph A. McCullough
Illustrated by Mark Stacey

Published by Osprey Publishing

Available May 19th 2016

'Even as the discovery and exploitation of hephaestium helped bring the Civil War to its close in 1869, the arms race it engendered resulted in a cold war just as bitter and violent as the open hostilities had been. With neither side willing to rely solely upon the talents of their scientific establishments, saboteurs, double-agents, and assassins found ample employment. Against this backdrop of suspicion and fear, thousands of Americans - Northerners and Southerners alike - headed west. Some to escape the legacies of the war, some to find their own land, some for the lure of that great undiscovered strike of hephaestium that would make them rich, and some simply to escape the law. Ahead of these pioneers stood the native tribes, behind them followed the forces of two governments, while to the north and south, foreign powers watched closely for their own opportunities. 

This newly unearthed collection of the works of Miles Vandercroft fills a considerable gap in our knowledge of the travels of that remarkable individual, and also provides a fascinating guide to the costume and equipment of the forces active in the great drive westwards.'

Every time I come to a product such as this I always start with the same explanation of my exposure to steampunk; it isn't huge. I'm fully aware of steampunk and it's alternative take on history, and the way it blends technological innovation with the capabilities of the period - and maybe even throw in something exotic to help things along - but other than a couple of books and a few other smaller things that exposed me to this popular genre I've never really had any involvement in it. I do like it, but I've never truly delved into it.

I think one of the things that has kept me from it is the fact that nothing has ever really reached out of the pages and grabbed me, convinced me that I should explore it more. I've always enjoyed it but I've never really been encompassed by it, or really wanted to dedicate any time to it. I think, with all the other things that I'm passionate about that take up my time, it'd take something pretty spectacular to make me want more.

If I was sucked into this world it'd have to be something in the tabletop roleplaying arena and I think Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier may be the first book I've read to make me want to choose an applicable gaming system and run a series of adventures in an Old West steampunk setting.

I like the idea of the Old West, but as an Englishman I may have an overly romantic view of the period; that frontier mentality, danger on the borders, the politics of the country, the brutal law and the radical lawlessness... yes, incredibly inaccurate historically but I'm not looking for accuracy in a roleplaying game like this, I'm looking for adventure. Running a straightforward Western RPG may not be right up my street, but add steampunk contraptions, an alternative American history and a couple of glorious Alamo Fortified Suits... seriously, go to page 31 and I guarantee that as a gamer you'll want to stat that baby straight away. I could get some serious mileage out of it.

The book itself is a full-colour hardback at 96 pages, and is illustrated throughout. The book details the two governments of the country - The North (The Union) and The South (The Confederacy), The Disputed Territories where the native tribes remain, The Far North of Canada and Alaska, The Old South of Mexico, and The Manifest Destined - which to be fair, is where I'd set my games, right on the frontier.

Written as if Osprey Publishing are presenting these details as facts, each section has a brief introduction to explain the state of this particular part of the country and then there follows a series of illustrations that give us an example of an individual who lives there (and when I say lives there, I mean fights there) and it gives the role of that person, the role of the organisation they are involved in and what it is they do.

And it's really well done. The writing is crisp and needs only a page to explain what they are and what they do, and as you make your way through the book it slowly builds a much larger picture of the country, larger than the brief introduction was able to give. It gives some great background and reality to the alternative history that's been created and acts as a great sourcebook for anyone wanting to use the material for their games, be it creating something from scratch or using the setting for their existing steampunk campaign, Even if you're not intending to use it as a gaming resource, it's just a great read with some amazing illustrations that'd look great on the bookshelf. Steampunk enthusiasts and cosplayers will find lots of great images in here that will no doubt give them some inspiration for their next project.

The combination of atmospheric writing (the fact that straight away they deal with the history and the images as fact and not fiction adds so much depth) and great art (each image has a great dynamic and gives real character) makes Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier a great evening's read. It's not long at all, but I found myself revisiting it to check out certain images and backgrounds, and as a tabletop roleplayer I found a lot to help me into my first steampunk-themed game. Everybody likes a good western, and having the ability to add an Alamo Fortified Suit, a postman with an armoured dog, a Confederate trooper on a camel, flying natives, Banditos with flamethrowers and land Ironclads... I mean, come on, who's going to say no to that?

Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is a great book that really makes you wish the west really was that wild.

Recommended.