A review by Nick Thiwerspoon
That’s what I feel about Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s The Order of the Air sequence of novels.
Now, everybody will have their own criteria for what makes a story good. It seems to me that it starts from the characters in the story — characterisation; character depth; character development; differentiation between characters; character interest; and so on. After all, though some stories can be fascinating and intriguing in themselves, a rattling good yarn is not really very interesting unless we have come to care about the people in it. So the characters in the story have to appear real, they have to be a mixture of good and bad, they have to change and grow during the story, and their actions have to be consistent with what we know about them. We are used to the conventions of fiction. We understand that the all-seeing author can get into the minds of the characters. But we don’t forgive an author whose characters behave in an uncharacteristic way, or are just mouthpieces for an ideology, or flat cardboard puppets, or who are in the end simply unconvincing.
A rattling good yarn is next on my list. Is the story exciting? Does it draw you in? Is the book unputdownable? The Order of the Air trilogy is all these.
Then we get on to dialogue and description. They’re harder than they seem. How we think people talk isn’t in fact how they actually talk. Real conversations are filled with gaps, ellipses, repetitions, mumbles, and so on. If you read transcripts of taped conversations you will see what I mean. So the author has to write dialogue in such a way that it appears natural when it isn’t. Description is tricky, too. Too much and it palls; too little and the world our characters inhabit appears flat and uninteresting. True genius in a writer is when there is no description at all but where the characterisation, character development and the dialogue are so compelling that we forget that the pictures in our heads have big blanks. Think of Jane Austen as a perfect example. What do Darcy or Anne Elliott look like? What is their hair and eye colour? What are their houses, their villages like? It doesn’t matter. It is who and what they are; the perfect cadences of their speech; Jane Austen’s acid humour; the personal growth and development of each main character. These are what make her novels so compelling.
Which brings me to the two final criteria in my list: a happy ending, and the triumph of right over wrong. The inimitable Jane’s stories have happy endings, and virtue wins in the end. I suspect that she used both of these fictional devices just to satisfy the conventions of the time (in itself an interesting point). The way she ties up the loose ends in her stories always seem a fraction hasty and too neat, and dare I say it, somewhat unreal. Maybe what she really wanted was to have more Lucy Steeles, whose spite, insincerity, lies and flattery win in the end, or appear to. Would we have then enjoyed her novels so much, though? I confess to a purely personal desire for happy endings and the good guys winning, perhaps precisely because it is so rare in the “real world.”
The Order of The Air series (a trilogy so far, but I have high hopes that there will be more) satisfies all my criteria perfectly.
The first volume is Lost Things.
This is the blurb:
In 1929 archeologists began draining Lake Nemi in search of the mysterious ships that have been glimpsed beneath its waters since the reign of Claudius. What they awakened had been drowned for two thousand years. For a very good reason.
Veteran aviator Lewis Segura has been drifting since the Great War ended, fetched up at last at the small company run by fellow veterans and pilots Alma Gilchrist and Mitchell Sorley, assisted by their old friend Dr. Jerry Ballard, an archeologist who lost his career when he lost part of his leg. It’s a living, and if it’s not quite what any of them had dreamed of, it’s better than much that they’ve already survived. But Lewis has always dreamed true, and what he sees in his dreams will take them on a dangerous chase from Hollywood to New York to an airship over the Atlantic, and finally to the Groves of Diana Herself….
The world is full of lost treasures. Some of them are better off not found.
In this sequel to Lost Things, when the Gilchrist Aviation team tries to win the money to keep the business going during the 1930s Depression, by placing first in a coast-to-coast air race, things get complicated! A stolen necklace, a runaway Russian countess, and a century-old curse seem like trouble enough, but then there’s New Orleans, and the unsolved murders of the New Orleans Axeman. But what if the murderer is one of them?
A series of mysterious plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains in the midst of a Depression winter call Air Corps reservists Mitch Sorley and Lewis Segura out to fly search and rescue, but it’s more than just a simple navigational hazard. Fortunately Mitch and Lewis are more than just pilots. With Lewis’ wife Alma and their old friend Dr. Jerry Ballard they’re members of an esoteric Lodge dedicated to the protection of the world. The Silver Bullet Mine is haunted-or is it? Can ghosts bring down aircraft? And are the small-time crooks who are interested in the Mine simply looking to make a buck-or the vanguard of something more evil and deadly? Aided by their former con artist office manager Stasi Rostov, they’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s happening at the Silver Bullet Mine before more lives are lost. It may be that Jerry holds the key not only to Silver Bullet, but to an even more dangerous secret, one that men have killed to gain for two thousand years. The Lodge is in deep, and there is only one man who can help them, the legendary scientist Nikola Tesla!
Each of these novels feels like a 1930s or 1950s comic or pulp fiction paperback — only much, much better written. What the blurbs don’t tell you is the relationships between the characters, the way entirely convincing love builds between them. Jerry Ballard is gay, Alma Gilchrist’s husband, the former head of their Lodge, was bi and loved both Alma and Jerry. When Alma tells Lewis (her new husband) about it, his confusion is very real. The scenes where Mitch connects with Stasi are both funny and very erotic (there’s the best description of what prostate massage feels like I’ve read anywhere).
The suspense is entirely convincing. In Lost Things, you are in the airship as it sinks towards the sea. You wonder whether the plane will make it across the gulf to Florida in the teeth of a magically called wind, in Steel Blues. In Silver Bullet, the standoff at the remote mine holds your attention — we know, even if the characters don’t, that the potential weapon there might make the difference to the world being ruled by Hitler or not.
The descriptions of the time feel exactly as one imagines it. The late 1920s and early 1930s detail is convincing and real, almost cinematic. And the technical details of flight and planes don’t seem to be inserted as an afterthought, to add a skimpy verisimilitude to their tales. They fit in, they enhance the realism, they are essential to the plots. If you are writing about magic and otherworldly powers it is even more important that the rest of the story persuades us to suspend our disbelief. And everything in the story does just that: the careful delineation of the characters and their interactions; the historical realism; the obvious in-depth knowledge of flying.
Everything you want from an engaging story is there: love, romance, suspense, excitement, eros, satisfaction, a happy ending, and ultimately the victory of right over wrong. Highly recommended.
You can buy the three novels in the “Order of the Air” series from CrossRoads press – go to
© 2014 Nikolaos Thiwerspoon
[Steel Blues was reviewed in the last issue. ]