I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading the latest offering from Skull Island Expeditions – Chris A Jackson’s Blood & Iron novella. In this, the most recent installment of the Warcaster Chronicles imprint, we follow the shenanigans of Captain Phinneus Shae and his crew as they’re pursued on the high seas by persons seeking to lay claim to the bounty on Shea’s head.
I can’t claim to be familiar with Jackson’s earlier work, but I will say that I was impressed with how, as an author, he handled two things in particular.
1. Working with the naval setting.
[Post-review-writing note: looking at Jackson’s existing biography, it’s no surprise whatsoever – the man’s an experienced high-seas storyteller]
The vast bulk of Blood & Iron takes place on board Shae’s ship, the Talion. This is a sizeable vessel with a crew of over 200 sea dogs (Take THAT, Jack Sparrow), including an array of specialists such as a father-and-daughter team of engineers. There’s the standard rigging you’ll find on historical ships, and while I’m not of a particularly nautical bent personally and thus can’t verify, Jackson’s easy familiarity with nautical terminology and the intricacies of sailing verbiage is pervasive.
Then there are the steam-powered paddlewheels, which add a whole new level of complication. I ended the book feeling as if I’d managed to expand my vocabulary in the process, always a bonus.
Then, collateral damage. When you have ships firing broadsides at each other, things get hit and people get hurt and stuff flies everywhere. One of my favourite episodes of Mythbusters had the team investigating the effects of cannon fire on various types of wood that would have been used for ship building, and it was somewhat alarming just how much damage could be done not by the cannonballs, but by shards of timber torn apart by the impact. This isn’t lost on Jackson, and more than one individual gets a splinter that leaves more than a swollen red lump.
Along with this, I must say the book is very visceral. Given that a lot of Privateer Press’ fiction tends to be fairly clean in the grand scheme of things, Blood & Iron bloodies (hah!) the waters, with gore playing a story-appropriate part and Doc Killingsworth doing pretty much exactly what you’d expect him to do when presented with a pirate with a crushed limb. Life on the high seas isn’t for the weak of heart, or those averse to prosthetics.
While the Talion does sail across different waters through Blood & Iron, the restrictions forced on Jackson by keeping almost all of the action on board the one ship don’t seem to have mattered at all. At no point did the story feel unnecessarily claustrophobic, but rather the vastness of the open sea prevails, right up to the point where they’re traversing coral shoals that have claimed many a vessel before them.
2. Working with an ensemble cast.
I’ve been critical in the past of some of Skull Island’s offerings that have an ensemble cast. It can be a chore juggling personalities, especially considering the significance of the named characters in the Iron Kingdoms setting to those of us who play Warmachine and Hordes, and when you namedrop character A, B or C, you need to be mindful of giving them enough facetime and significance in the storyline to appease fans of those characters, while at the same time not sacrificing story cohesion.
In the case of Blood & Iron, Jackson had something of a helping hand in that most of the crew of the Talion are known to wargamers as working hand-in-hand – Shae, Hawk, Killingsworth, Rockbottom, Walls, Grogspar, even Aiyana and Holt. Of course, Jackson decided to kick it up a notch by naming other crew members. On the one hand this generates a little confusion at first as the reader tries to keep tabs on who’s who – and I imagine I’d have been somewhat lost if I wasn’t already familiar with so many of the crew – but the flipside there is that it makes the injuries and casualties that much more meaningful, more poignant. I actually found myself thinking that if Jackson did anything to either of the Corcorians I was going to climb through the internet and slap him.
Of course, it’s said that a hero is only as interesting as his villains, and in this case the villains of the piece are… two other ships, only one of which has a named captain, and the other being essentially a complete unknown even to Shae. Normally I’d say that’s a heck of a weakness in the story, but Jackson uses the anonymity of the foes to build tension as the Talion‘s crew seem to be battling the circumstances rather than any specific enemy…
… and then there’s the Ghostmaker.
Mere moments into the story we’re made aware of a deadly sniper out to collect the bounty on Shae’s head, and it’s this bounty hunter that plays the literary foil to Shae. As smart and capable as he is, he comes across as impulsive, while the Ghostmaker is patient. He’s passionate and empathic, the Ghostmaker is cold and calculating… and DAMN I want to see someone make a custom model for the Ghostmaker, even if it’s only for use in Iron Kingdoms RPG.
Throughout Blood & Iron, author Chris A Jackson dances through the setting and spins the personalities of the cast deftly. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon’s reading, and wait – just wait – for Holt’s moment of badassness. Aww yeah.
Blood & Iron is the latest release in the Warcaster Chronicles imprint from Skull Island Expeditions, and can be purchased here. Chris A Jackson is the award winning author of the Scimitar Seas novels, and has written a series of novellae about cheese smugglers in space. Seriously. You can read more about him here.