Before I get into this, let me start by saying that I am a die-hard Potterhead, but other than that, I don’t read a lot of fantasy. However, a good bit of my TV watching is relegated to the genre and my imagination loves a good story that can put vampires, were-creatures, magic and elves in the same world and make it work. The Steel Empires series by J.L. Gribble does a great job of this and has an added bonus element of being set in an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire never fell.
These novels center around Victory, an 800 year-old vampire, her partner Mikelos, and their two adopted children, Toria and Kane, who are both powerful mages and fledgling mercenaries. The world they inhabit is one that struggles through the aftermath of a nuclear war and where old and new technology and ideals are woven together with a fragile thread of magic. The series chronicles the lives, loves and adventures of its characters and their world in such a way that readers are constantly on their toes and waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you’re into Harry Potter like I am, one of the things that you appreciate about the series is the author’s ability to tell a great story while also teaching an important lesson. The Steel Empires series functions in a similar manner. While it touches on similar themes such as the importance of Love, Loyalty, and Friendship, it also touches on themes that are relevant more to adults than younger readers such as xenophobia and the importance of questioning and analyzing the status quo.
Also, spoiler alert: there are NO CHAPTERS in these books, so settle in for the long haul because you literally cannot put them down.
The first book in this series serves as an introduction to the vampire Victory, her family, and Limani, the small independent city-state between the Roman and British empires they inhabit. In the time since the Great War that nearly decimated the earth, Limani has enjoyed relative peace and security as the New Continent’s neutral zone between the Roman and British Empire. When the Roman Empire threatens to invade Limani, Victory must balance the fight to protect Limani’s borders with the fight to protect Limani from itself while her daughter Toria balances life as a mage, mercenary and college student.
When I read that J.L. Gribble originally submitted this novel as the thesis project for her master’s degree, I was both in awe and a little jealous. Being a grad student myself, I only wish I could have half the fun with my projects as the author clearly did with this one. It’s clear from page one that J.L. Gribble was dedicated to her characters and the world she created for them. Each individual you’re introduced to throughout Steel Victory has a finely crafted personality and voice that draws you in and makes you demand to know more about them. The magic that surrounds the characters and brings the story to life doesn’t overpower the over-arching plot and message of the book, but instead augments it in such a way that instead of getting muddled, as urban fantasy novels often can, each new element feels as though it belongs and completely makes sense.
In Steel Magic, the reader is reintroduced to Toria and Kane. As recent college graduates, the bonded mage pair is ready to start their career as mercenaries, but, like any college graduate, they still need to answer the big question: “What next?” When they happen upon the discovery that the world’s mage population is dwindling at a staggering rate, the pair is hired to travel to the British colony to find out why. When a friend disappears during their search for the truth, Toria and Kane’s quest takes them to the other side of the world where they not only have to save their friend, but magic and the world itself.
The second installment of this series is interesting because this is where the series really makes its distinction as a series for adults as opposed to the young adult genre where a lot of urban fantasy tends to land. Thematically, Steel Magic is much darker than its predecessor, and I feel it’s better for it. The plot of this novel allows the reader to delve deeper into the world that J.L. Gribble has created and what makes it tick. Steel Magic is one of those novels that truly makes you think. It pushes the reader to look at morals and values in a light that they may not have previously considered and analyze the fact that everything in life has a cause, effect, benefit and cost.
And, if like me, you’re from the mid-Atlantic area, you may find yourself, in an effort to step away from all the heavy thinking, examining the landmarks and locations in this novel. Although J.L. Gribble does a great job in this series of staying somewhat ambiguous about the exact location of Limani, if you’re paying attention, you may realize that this world is not very different from our own.
While Toria and Kane are off on their quest to uncover the reason for the decline of the mage population, the vampire Victory is pulled out of retirement to act as a bodyguard for a princess of the Qin Empire. When an unexpected relationship blooms between Victory’s charge and a nobleman from the British Empire, Victory is forced to choose between her loyalty to an old friend and her personal values and loyalty to the princess. As the Qin and British Empires make tenuous steps toward ending a century-long stand-off, Victory’s choice could affect the fate of both empires.
Steel Blood is a departure from the other novels in this series partially because at its most basic core, it’s a love story. Many of the love stories in the world of Limani are well-cemented before the reader is ever introduced to them. In this case, the reader gets to see the romance from beginning and the way it unfolds envelopes you into it in such a way that you find yourself alternating between “YES!” and “BUT WHY?!”. While this novel takes you somewhat out of the world, creatures and magic you’ve become familiar with in the other novels, it provides with context and new magic that remind you that anything is possible in this series. Hint: There’s dragons!
In Steel Time, Victory and Toria are brought back together after what, to the reader, feels like forever. When Toria takes a contract to search the wasteland for a long-lost artifact, she is suddenly shoved back in time to over a century ago- right before the Great War and the end of the world as its inhabitants knew it. In her journey to the past, Toria encounters new friends, future foes and an entire population of people who have no idea what’s about to happen to them. Victory, after witnessing her daughter’s departure, quickly follows after her but finds herself in the past mere weeks before the war that destroyed the world. Together, mother and daughter have to find a way to escape the past, preserve the future and rescue those they’ve come to love.
After reading the most recent novel in the Steel Empires series, I can only liken it to an onion (or a cake if you’re strictly anti-vegetable). The layers in this series are unbelievable! In each book, rather than simply continuing the existing story, J.L. Gribble takes special care to expand upon the knowledge you’ve gained in the previous novels. Steel Time is no exception. Prior to this novel, while there were numerous references to the Great War, there was little mention of how it started or what the world was like before nuclear weapons. This novel gives you all the pieces you’ve been missing and then some. It’s beautifully written and, again, truly envelopes the reader in the world in which it takes place. The reader learns to appreciate and love the new characters that are introduced and frets over their welfare after the inevitable occurs.
Trisha Tucci lives near Baltimore, MD with her husband, 4 cats and 2 dogs. She is a university employee by day and grad student and bibliophile by night. She loves Harry Potter and books about books, but will read just about anything that can spark her imagination.