Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether, the third book in Richard E Preston, Jr.’s Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series, takes a slight deviation from the styles of the previous two and focuses a little less on action and a little bit more on world making, relationships, character, and backstory. That may sound dull but it’s not. There’s still plenty of action, but with the added bonus of delving more into each character we’ve come to know and love. It’s also in this book where we truly dive (literally and figuratively) into Atlantis, and get more story behind the Sabrina and the children of Balthazar, leader of the Crankshaft clan.
We are once again bestowed with a starkly different setting for this book than the other two. While we remain in the steampunesque Snow World, most of the action takes place under water, in Atlantis, the never-lost city under the sea. The Atlanteans base their culture on the Roman Empire, replete with burnished armor and red-combed helmets, Senators in togas, and feelings of superiority. Mr. Preston describes a world of wonder, one that seems both possible if not real with an otherworldly quality to it. Under a thin veneer of civility and power lies of people that are both savage and scared. Those two are never a good combination. Whether it’s the mysterious luminiferous aether with its odd electricity or the items on the menu, this undersea world feels quite alien.
We have an opportunity to learn more about the Captain, Max, and Sabrina as well as some of their related family. It’s interesting to see both the parallels and the differences between the airborne culture of the Crankshafts and undersea one of the Atlanteans. Of course, some of the similarities are relatively obvious like being on a vessel whether it’s riding under the ocean or on top of the air; there are a number of similarities both in discipline and in design. However, it is the cultural differences, beyond of modes of transport and living space, that make the real story.
We also get the backstory to the Atlantean’s themselves as well as Penny Dreadful’s story (who was introduced to us in Book 2). In the course of providing the respective back stories of these characters and places, we are brought along with just that, stories. So, it’s not some long boring monologue used for exposition but intriguing side stories that are well integrated into the whole. Yes, this is a book with more disparate storylines, not all of which fully converge before Mr. Preston’s very unkindly delivered cliffhanger. We’ll have to wait for the next installment to see them converge.
The things I love about the series – its swashbuckling nature with a steampunk twist, in the immortal words of Mal – real damn heroes, and familial relationships that go beyond blood all continue to be played out albeit with some tweaking and nuance added. Romulus Buckle is taken out of his comfort zone, if threading the air in a gas balloon tethered by ropes could be called a comfort zone, and placed leagues under the sea. Despite the pressure (undersea and otherwise), he holds firm to his character as does his company.
Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether is another fabulous book in the Pneumatic Zeppelin series and I look forward to its next entry (which I would do even if not left dangling from a story-rope even as I’m hoisted into the next story – just sayin’).