Steampunk-y counterfactuality meets late-breaking technology in a package that’s better than its content.
Tapinas’ novel is part of a projected series that’s set in pre–World War I–era Eastern Europe, placing some decidedly supernatural elements within the standard recitation of tensions among ethnic groups, nationalities and empires—especially those of the Germans and the Russians. In a scenario that turns on the uncomfortable trope of a secret Jewish conspiracy to control world events, a stereotypically sinister goniff at the helm, Tapinas imagines a high-tech, post-Victorian Vilnius paired with a Prague of golems and their masters, a place contested by Cossacks and Prussians and menaced by an iron, bionic wolf that has its way with the city as it “langorously advance[s] along Safjaniki Street.” Tapinas’ Vilnius is not entirely the one of the atlas, laced with neighborhoods like “Steam City” and “Blots,” but his pages are laced with references to actual figures from Lithuanian history. A reader who hasn’t got that history committed to heart may feel lost in spots, and in any event the story often loses—well, steam as it wanders by way of many minor detours toward its showdown with the superlobo. The story may be draggy and uncentered, but the vehicle by which it’s delivered is first-rate, easily navigated and (in a nice touch borrowed from Kindle) with a how-far-along-you-are-in-the-story gauge in the footer. The effects are terrific, too, from floating clouds as airships take flight to well-drawn maps, pop-up glosses (“Legion, The. An organisation of mercenaries responsible for public order and security in the Alliance cities”) and other multimedia features.
One wishes that the story were as well-thought-through as the app. (Requires iOS 6 and above.)