La Mancha and Sancho Panza. Thelma and Louise. Romy and Michele.
Like the best buddies pics, Ryan Van Loan’s debut, The sin in steelfinds his whole heart in the room shared by his two wildly diverging protagonists Buc and Eld. Buc is a young street kid with a mind and mouth that run faster than anyone can keep up, and Eld is an ex-soldier who doesn’t say much. They are known to get the job done regardless of the circumstances.
When this unlikely couple brings their practice to the Shattered Coast – a Caribbean-like archipelago that has been repopulated but once ravaged by centuries of violent hurricanes – they’ll soon be hired (uh, well … blackmailed) by the Kanados Trading Company Track them down The infamous widowmaker who sunk ships along a popular sailing route and threatens the import and export of sugar, a vital element in the Shattered Coast’s economy. Buc and Eld embark on an adventure that takes them to the furthest coast of the Shattered Shore to discover a mystery that may challenge the fate of the gods themselves.
I was immediately reminded of Scott Lynch’s razor-sharp voice The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Van Loan quickly diverges from Lynch with a refined narrative style that relies on plot as well as his genuinely amusing dialogue. Every action has consequences, a cost to every magic. When Buc squeezes too much, she falls and Eld has to pick up the pieces. In an exchange of fire, another character is wounded and then has to hobble around for chapters. How many times have you read a fantasy book in which the heroes escape battle after battle unscathed, but because of bruises? Van Loan isn’t easy on its characters and it pays off, as the action scenes in the novel often create ripples for later chapters.
The sin in steel is an incredibly fast book with a pace that literally never slacks off, but Van Loan, with all the skills of a world builder with a dozen books in his luggage, sprays many little secrets and surprises about his world during the entire action. He hands out lots of small bites to chew on, but then moves you on before you have time to swallow. Instead of feeling frustrating, the way Van Loan does this makes you very eager to learn and also extremely satisfied as you begin to put all the little pieces together as the book progresses. Writing a book that has a plot in your face and a really well-developed and unique world at the same time is no small feat, but Van Loan pulled it off.
I’m not going to spoil worldbuilding too much, however The sin in steel offers one of the most promising and unique mixes of worldbuilding and magic systems that I have seen outside of a Brandon Sanderson book. It’s nowhere near as technical as Mistborn, but Van Loan mixes science and magic in a way so brilliant that I wish I had thought of it first. If you read carefully you will find a world so much more than your average faux-medieval fare. If you dig deeper into the story, Van Loan gives clues to the origins of the gods, and the moment it all clicked I grinned like an idiot. I like writers who take risks with the way they build the world, from Van Loan’s archipelago to its magical system and story. The sin in steel is brave and reckless – but just like Buc, it gets the job done anyway.
The sin in steel but not all of it is action. Van Loan, a former U.S. Army infantry sergeant who served on the front lines in Afghanistan, weaves his conspiracy into a thoughtful and deeply personal investigation into PTSD. Eld suffers from his time as a soldier in the war against the Burning Lands haunted by his experience in the face of magical weapons of mass destruction. Buc, conversely, deals with what we would consider ADHD or something similar, and deals with itself with kan, the Shattered Coast version of cannabis. Together they master these challenges by supporting each other – understanding what the other needs and how he can provide it. It is a thoughtful examination of how damaged people can find new strength in one another.
Like the protagonists of the best buddy pictures, Buc and Eld impress when they have room to ricochet off each other, leaving the reader breathless as they move from one unlikely situation to the next. A book like The sin in steel It couldn’t work without great chemistry between his heroes, but Van Loan delivers a duo that you won’t soon forget and that are so much stronger together than apart.
One of my big problems with a lot of modern fantasy that contains grim elements is that characters often fall too far on the side of grim and dark and the writers forget to make a real connection between them and the reader. The sin in steel can be a very dark book, with a lot of violence and some really horrific characters, but Van Loan avoids falling into that trap by phrasing all of his characters’ conflicts in past tragedies and ongoing battles. We understand why Buc is defensive and caustic, we know why Chan Sha takes a stand, we get the reasons for Eld’s suspicion.
The sin in steel is a fast-paced epic fantasy that combines a truly unique world with an equally outstanding magical system. It’s full of characters you will root and despise, who will make your skin crawl, and who will cheer you on from the sidelines. Full of action, tempered by really thought-provoking topics of mental health and confidence. The sin in steel tells a good self-contained narrative with a satisfactory result, but also leaves the door wide open for the inevitable sequels. In the spirit of A new hope, Buc and Eld close a Story, but stand on the precipice of a much larger narrative that promises to go beyond the scope of The sin in steel no more water. If Scott Lynch wrote Pirates of the Caribbean, it would be very similar The sin in steel.
The sin in steel is available from Tor Books.
Aidan Moher is the founder of A drop of ink, Author of “Calling Goblins” and “The Penelope Qingdom”and a regular post on Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but the easiest way to find him is on Twitter @ Adribbleofink and Patreon.