In his afterword to The Battle of Blood and Ink, author Jared Axelrod explains that the whole project started with a conversation he and artist Steve Walker had about the importance of a strong sense of place in fiction. They envisioned a project in which the details of the setting permeated and informed every aspect of the story. After some spitballing, they conceived of the flying steampunk city of Amperstam. The city and the characters who populate it are promising, but, unfortunately, Axelrod and Walker’s storytelling sometimes fails to keep up with their worldbuilding.
Main character Ashe is, in the local parlance, a clouddog – a tough, resourceful, and poor citizen of Amperstam doing what she can to get by. She ekes out a living writing and printing The Lurker’s Guide to Amperstam, a muckraking broadsheet dedicated to exposing the hypocrisies of Amperstam’s ruling class, particularly the corrupt Provost. As the book opens, a freelance airship pilot under heavy fire from the pursuing Vrussian military requests asylum in Amperstam. He offers money and goods in exchange for safety, but the Provost ignores his pleas until the captain pledges himself and his crew into indefinite servitude. Throughout this scene, Ashe flies daringly through the battle in order to get her scoop. When she publishes her scathing report on the Provost’s actions, the plot launches into a flurry of escalating encounters between clouddogs and authorities that leave both Ashe and Amperstam changed forever.
It’s clear that Axelrod and Walker have put some thought into their fictional city and done a fine job fleshing out the social and physical landscapes. The neighborhoods all have interesting names indicative of their inhabitants’ occupations. We get passing images of fresh water vendors and folks who make their living collecting human waste, both logical ramifications of a flying city’s contained ecosystem that I hadn’t considered and was intrigued to see. We’re shown one issue of Ashe’s Lurker’s Guide. It contains several incidental local news items in addition to the article pertaining to the comic’s main plot. Altogether, elements such as these are a good step in the direction of establishing a world that seems to live and breathe outside of the narrative – the holy grail of worldbuilding.
At times, the art is a great help in this endeavor. We see some interesting technology and well-designed costumes. Some pages have backgrounds teeming with the bustle of city life and the technological flourish one expects from steampunk. However, this quality isn’t maintained throughout. Some rooms and buildings are little more than simple geometric shapes and lack the texture and detail necessary to feel like a glimpse into a fully-formed world.
I’d cheerfully overlook these artistic lapses had I been more pleased with the plotting, which tended toward the facile. Ashe’s journalistic investigations hinge upon good luck and repressed memories, which is hardly satisfying. Axelrod takes a stab at humanizing the reviled Provost, but her character arc is too cursory to bear fruit. The final resolution was probably intended as an exhilarating twist, but instead comes off as a out-of-left-field deus ex machina, in part because of how it wrenches the book away from steampunk conventions into the realm of superheroics.
I like this world. It’s a setting I can imagine being developed into something really immersive and delightful. Axelrod has prequel stories available on his website and I may give them a try. If he writes a second graphic novel I’ll be happy to delve into it as well, but I’ll be crossing my fingers for some small tweaks to help any future work overcome this book’s shortcomings.