In 1815, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, two of England’s wealthiest lords place a high-stakes wager on whether a popular set of books, which claim that the author has traveled to many unknown corners of the globe, are truth or, more likely, wild fiction. First Light is an epistolary novel, told primarily through the eyes of former aide-de-camp Gregory Conan Watts, describing the journeys of the airship Dame Fortuna and its crew through journals and letters to his beloved fiancee.
The first recruit is, necessarily, the airship’s owner: war hero, famed genius, and literal knight in steam-powered armor Sir James Coltrane. Persuading him to lend his talents and refitted airship to the venture requires bringing along his sister, his cousin, and the crew that flew with him during the Napoleonic Wars. Only with their aid can they track down a Scottish rifleman, a pair of shady carnies, and a guide with a strong personal investment in the stories.
When they set out, the wild places of the world, including the far American West, the Australian interior, darkest Africa, and other destinations are thought to be hostile enough. No one expects the trip to involve a legendary storm – or the Year Without a Summer of 1815-1816. The voyage is further complicated by the human element. Some parties are not at all happy with the post-war political map. Most problematic of all, the crew hired by the other side of the wager seem willing to win by any means necessary.
As the preface indicates, this book is a series of letters and journal entries written primarily by a single character, with footnotes written by a second character. I confess I had some skepticism about how much I’d enjoy this book, primarily because I prefer to be shown over being told any day of the week, and how could personal letters and journal entries possibly do anything other than telling?
Apparently, they can. The main character paints with his words while practicing the art of letter writing, and I adored every page. The story is remarkably vivid, and makes me miss the days before email and texting. Gregory Watts is a wonderful narrator. The shifts in tone depending upon his intended audience are subtle and spot-on. His wit and panache are delightful. Cordelia’s notes made for a superb counterpoint, as well as providing setting details without being pedantic.
The setting is a pre-Steampunk era of alternate history, where England won the Revolutionary War, and is still ascending through the 19th century. Steam is on its way to being a major force. Victorian mores rule the day. All of this sets the stage brilliantly for a true Steampunk future, which I hope the author intends to pursue after finishing the trilogy this book begins.
I heartily recommend this novel to anyone willing to be sucked into the mind of a proper English gentleman who is scandalized by women wearing pants.