Title: Vacant Graves (Magnocracy Series #2)
Author: Christopher Beats
Published: February 18, 2013 by Carina Press
Category: Mystery – Steampunk
Rating: 4 out of 5
Donovan Schist’s current job was supposed to be an easy one: grab Phoebe Mosey before pimp and murderer Stanny Slash does, and drag her back home to Ohio—kicking and screaming if necessary. But when a blazing river halts their steam train in the middle of nowhere, the veteran turned detective starts to wish he had stayed in New York.
With a homicidal Stanny hot on their trail—maybe poisoning Stanny’s man was a bad idea—Donovan needs to get Phoebe out of Juniper Junction fast. Even if that means taking a few jobs for some quick cash.
He doesn’t expect to find a mining company on the brink of war with a union, or bloodthirsty strike-breakers itching to use a steam tank and other weapons he hasn’t seen since the War of Southern Secession. Or that underneath it all lies something much darker—an unspeakably diabolical conspiracy.
Vacant Graves is not a book for everyone, but I found it engrossing. It’s set in an alternative historical Pennsylvania, shortly after the Civil War. The North lost the War of Southern Secession, thanks in part to the South’s dry ironclads that rumbled over the battlefield, Gatling guns and toxic gasses. In the North, the Magnocracy is run by the magnates and money equals power. Honestly, I think the world-building hooked me first. I have some knowledge of the Civil War, you can’t help it after living near Gettysburg and working at the park for a year or so. I live in eastern Ohio now and most of the action in the story takes place in western Pennsylvania, in mines and factories that I feel like I know, if that makes sense. Granted, the time-period was 150 years ago, but it felt familiar, the hills and rivers, factory shifts and unions.
Donovan Schist is a war veteran and former Pinkerton who now works as an independent detective, mostly hired to find young people in New York City and bring them home. His current job though gets out of hand when he and his findee, Phoebe, are on a train to Ohio that gets stuck in Juniper Junction unable to cross a bridge over a burning river. Just up the road from Juniper Junction are two towns, one a mill town, one a factory town, and between them stands the hospital that serves both. The whole area is a powder keg waiting to explode, and Donovan gets them right smack in the middle of it, taking a job for the union to find out who the factory has working the night shift since they fired the workers, and one for the miners to find out if/where the company is burying the dead miners whose bodies are not being returned to the families.
Vacant Grave is packed full of action scenes, shoot-outs, mob riots. And Phoebe, the young farm girl Schist rescues is a crack shot, which comes in mighty handy, otherwise both of them would have dead long before they figure out the creepy secrets the towns hold. I liked Phoebe a lot. For a country girl, she was the perfect partner for Schist, her innocence and trusting attitude contrasted well with his cynical outlook. Schist is that tough-talking, seen it all, knows it all, kind of detective who does have a good heart, it’s just buried pretty deep.
This is the second in the series, but I didn’t feel like I was missing much by not having read the first. I do wish we had gotten to meet Moira, Schist’s wife. She must be quite a woman to keep him in line.
If you’re looking for a steampunk-flavored noir mystery, give this one a shot. I’m certainly glad I did.