Among its many trappings, one thing that steampunk can do incredibly well is present an alternate history; a look at the world and how things may have been different with the early development of steam-based technology. The Starving Vulture by Miguel Montaña offers such an alternate reality. This is a world where just ten years after the birth of Christ, steam technology had been invented and has revolutionised the world, setting history on a completely different path. The year is 1527 and ancient empires still dominate the world.
As the four empires, Rome, Parthia, Qin and Nippon plot against each other, The Starving Vulture picks up five years after the “Eternal War,” where the world’s inhabitants are still navigating a messy post-war world. The book’s protagonist, Malic Thanis, a veteran from the Roman Empire, joins the mercenary company, collectively known as by titular moniker, the Starving Vulture.
While The Starving Vulture is squarely set in a steampunk world, if you are a fan of steampunk stories, you may find yourself disappointed. The book eschews many of the genre’s trappings, with a distinct lack of focus on the steampunk side of the world. The book contains some of the set dressing you would expect from a steampunk novel, but doesn’t delve deeply into the genre. The steampunk aspects of the story are largely used to set the scene and flesh out the world the characters inhabit, but the book doesn’t focus on these elements.
Where this book focuses its efforts, instead, is telling a story about war. A story about the Starving Vulture, a band of brothers brought together to fight by each other’s side. If you enjoy war stories, and particularly if you’re a fan of alternate histories, where these wars are fought by long-gone empires, you will find a lot to enjoy here. Above all else, The Starving Vulture is a war story (even if it is set in a post-war world), about a group of mercenaries fighting together as one. This is where the story truly excels.
At 333 pages in paperback (or an estimated 251 pages on Kindle), The Starving Vulture presents a brutal world where its characters fight for survival. Through this, the team must reconcile their mission to protect others and deliver cargo, with expectations that as veterans of the Eternal War, they should be a force for war, attacking others. Through this, Montaña brings humanity to the story. These are grizzled characters, but they are grizzled characters trying to do their best in a violent world. These characters are not just a team, but as they fight their bloody battles, it becomes apparent that they are not just a team, but a family.
Throughout the book, Montaña presents a violent and brutal world, but does so without lingering on it. As you would expect in a war story about mercenaries, there is plenty of action, and a number of violent moments. However, the author does not glorify these moments. They are part of the story, and yes, they form its set pieces, but the book doesn’t delight in the violence, which it presents matter-of-factly. Instead, The Starving Vulture is more interested in its characters and how they react to the world around them.
This is evident throughout the first person narration. From the outset, as Montaña introduces the reader to Malic, we are introduced to a character the reader can quickly infer is an honourable man. Through an inviting tone, the prose draws the reader in, making them want to keep reading to learn more about this character and the world he inhabits. The Starving Vulture is at its strongest through this prose; it is unfortunately less effective when characters are in the midst of dialogue, with the back and forth being less interesting.
However, as enjoyable as this prose is, it also leads me to the most disappointing aspect of the book. This is a book written in the present tense; however, throughout this story, it often jumps to the past tense. Often, this happens within the same paragraph, but on occasion, it happens within the same sentence. When this happens, it distracts me from the story being told, pulling me out of the story, and instead focused on the writing.
Due to this, I can’t help but feel that The Starving Vulture could have used an extra round or two of editing. There are also a few typos in the text which could have been picked up by some extra proofreading. While there aren’t a terrible number of these errors, when they occur, they are glaring. Combined with the book’s confusion with tenses, it results in a strong story that has been unfortunately let down by its technical issues.
The Starving Vulture tells an enjoyable war story set in an intriguing alternate past. While steampunk fans may well be disappointed by its light touch, fans of military stories will find a lot to enjoy. It’s a shame that the shifts in tense and typos distract from a truly entertaining story.
We are all experienced soldiers, forged in the grotesque battlefields of the Eternal War, but this would probably be the first time we’d be marching into a city dancing to the tune of anarchy’s song. A battleground where our enemies are lurking inside ruined homes or disguised as broken refugees. Or worse, the broken refugees could be our enemies.The Starving Vulture, Chapter 10
The Starving Vulture was provided to the author for the purpose of an honest review.
The Starving Vulture is available in paperback and on Kindle, exclusive to Amazon.
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