The Bottom Line
An alternate history/steampunk adventure with a touch of supernatural thriller and strong spiritual themes that will hold your attention with its intriguing premise and interesting plot. Held back primarily by weak character development.
I was excited to get to Jeff Provine’s Hellfire because it’s the first alternate history we’ve reviewed on The Wrambling Writers. It’s also got a healthy does of the supernatural mixed in with the alternate history and that’s something I’m always down for.
The premise is that a crystalline fire-enhancer known as Newton’s Catalyst has jump started a steam-driven industrial revolution ahead of schedule. It’s set in an 1856 filled with airships, steam-driven wagons, powerful locomotives, and an abundance of steel technology. But there’s a catch. The catalyst is also opening doorways to another dimension and monsters are coming through. The resulting story is a supernatural, alternate history, steampunk adventure that tackles issues of faith, technology, and government corruption.
On a broad level, I really enjoyed it. It’s an interesting concept, the story is intriguing, and I was never bored. When you get down to the details, though, I found it lacking in a few places.
Hellfire’s biggest weakness is its characters. I wanted to like them, but never really felt a connection with any of them. Provine does a good job of not ambushing us with character backstory early on, mostly working their histories in throughout the story. There is however, a lull in the action near the book’s final act, during which we get exposed to one character’s story in more detail. It’s done through conversation, so it’s not awful, but it comes too close to info dump for my tastes.
The biggest problem, however, was that the characters simply didn’t feel alive to me. Perhaps because their battle against the evil Rail Agency has little connection to anything personal in their lives. They go on their quest because each of them is thrust into it and they have to either fight to survive or die. There are no real personal stakes or goals tied directly to the large scale events of the story. That leads to a cast of characters who all feel more or less the same, so that it’s sometimes easy to forget who’s talking.
If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you’ll know that I’m really picky about dialogue. Really picky. The dialogue in Hellfire is not bad by any means. It’s just not great either. It’s solidly average. There are some good moments, a few bad ones, and mostly just middle grade, passable dialogue. It gets the job done.
Another big point for me is a book’s ending. I haven’t decided what I think of Hellfire’s ending yet, even though I finished it a few days ago. The very final pages do a good job of wrapping up the immediate story while making it clear where the characters are going from here. That combination of resolved-yet-open-ended can be difficult to strike and I applaud Provine for hitting it. What I’m less sure about is the actual climax a few pages earlier. The story is full of the supernatural, with God and demons playing important roles. So the divine intervention required to save the day isn’t wholly out of place. But it is a bit convenient and takes some of the thrill out of the high point. Again, it’s not awful, but it didn’t knock my socks off.
Like I said, I did really enjoy this book. The alternate history elements are very well done and we get small hints about what’s different in the world without ever being subjected to a boring (alternate) history lesson. The passing reference to Napoleon’s use of airships to invade Britain was brilliant. I absolutely love those subtly dropped details. They create a world that was fantastically built and which plays an integral part in the story. I love world building and Jeff Provine nailed that part of Hellfire.
The story itself, in the sense of plot, is also very interesting. Even though I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters, I still cared enough about what was going to happen to keep reading. And that’s because the plot was interesting and the twist was surprising, while not coming from so far off the radar that it felt implausible.
To Read Or Not To Read?
If you enjoy alternate history at all, you should read this book, no doubt. The biggest caveat is that if you’re easily turned off by spiritual themes, it’s probably not for you.