New Avalon: A Review of Neal Litherland’s Steampunk Noir

I don’t read a lot of stories with tragic endings. Strange thing to say considering I read a great deal of horror. Somehow in those stories, I don’t feel sadness because there is a positive aspect to the tale. Maybe the final girl survives the evil—possibly only to face it again later, but still she struggles forward. Even though several people have been killed or gone mad in the story—many not deservingly—a small amount of hope usually glimmers somewhere.

At times, the story is a “the monster wins” sort of tale, but my reaction is typically more along the lines of “That’s really f’ed up.” Then I reach for the nearest book in my Calvin and Hobbes collection and read a few pages to bathe my mind.

I wasn't thinking about this version of Tragedy when I started writing this post, but now I am.
I wasn’t thinking about this version of Tragedy when I started writing this post, but now I am.

Rarely do I read anything that have what is considered a tragic ending. It isn’t something I come across much. It seems it isn’t in vogue right now: People want happy-ish endings, even in their mystery and horror.

Me? The last time I read a tragedy was in school. Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, most likely. When tragedy was considered a genre people flocked to see on the stage. Classic tragedy—think Shakespearean is a genre which has a noble, yet flawed, protagonist who is placed in a stressful heightened situation and ends with a fatal conclusion. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Modern tragedy is focused on smaller characters—not nobles or royals or anything so grandiose—with smaller aspirations who act out of impulse, which becomes their downfall. Some of the modern works shelved as tragedy in Goodreads, The Kite Runner and The Hunger Games, I don’t see as tragic. Others, I agree fit the modern tragedy definition: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Damage by Josephine Hart.

Then there’s Neal Litherland’s New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam. New Avalon cover

New Avalon is a collection of Steampunk Noir stories. I was warned that each of the stories in this collection of shorts would end in some kind of tragedy. But I like to spread my wings beyond reading horror, romance (yes, I read it and write it too), mysteries, and classical literature. (I enjoy the classical literature, but it also helps with getting the answers right when I watch quiz shows.)

So I read it. I didn’t cry—must be made of some strong stuff—but they did impact me. I tended to pause at the end of each story to absorb each final scene. Litherland’s stories are mixed with strength and beauty, which serves to make each ending more pronounced in its tragedy.

I enjoyed the stories greatly, but knowing that they’d end in some sort of tragedy, I was bracing myself the entire time. Many of the tales resonated with me as I’d grown to like and understand the characters—a feat for an author to achieve in itself.

Also, I appreciated the diversity in characters. They were portrayed non-stereotypically and it showed me that there didn’t need to be a lot of attention called to their inclusion in the stories. Each character fit seamlessly into the world Litherland created—one of dark city streets, gunslingers, and mechanical leading men taking the stage…

These are the streets of New Avalon. Beware...
These are the streets of New Avalon. Beware…

These tales are extremely well written, but they have sad and despairing endings. Make sure you’re ready for them.

My favorites are: “Flight of Icarus”, “The Legend of Black Jack Guillotine”, and “The Understudy”.

And I liked the Steel Necktie. He’s a great character I hope Litherland makes sure we see more of him.

Neal granted me an interview recently to talk about New Avalon, tragic tales, and making diversity work in fiction.

 First of all, thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.

Well, I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. I’m an author who currently lives in Northwest Indiana, went to college once, and I always seem to have something I’m either working on or putting out. My writing style changes a little from story to story and genre to genre, but it’s largely inspired by gritty thrillers and film noir. When I feel like being clever I call it “metaphor as a weapon.”

What inspired you to write New Avalon? How did you choose the stories to include?

The inspiration came with the character The Steel Necktie (whose origin story is included in the book). The original idea was to write a series of novels, but I realized that creating my own imaginary city was going to take some work. I wrote the first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” in response to a call for steampunk short stories, and the others just sort of came. After the third story I drew a map of the city, and decided to center one story in each district as a way to build the city with stories.

Is New Avalon is considered grimdark? Define the grimdark genre for us.

I wouldn’t actually consider it to be a grimdark book, but if people want to put that label on it I won’t argue too strenuously against it. The genre requires three things: a dark tone, a sense of realism, and agency of your characters. This is a pretty broad umbrella, and grimdark comes in varying shades of gray, though the easiest example for people who want one is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

 For you, what makes a great dark tale? What do you like to read?

My reading tastes are all over the board. I love private detective stories, whether they’re Sherlock Holmes mysteries or Dashiell Hammett novels. I’m a big fan of horror stories, I love fantasy series, but I won’t turn down anything I like the taste of.

As far as “dark” stories go, I’ve got a pretty high bar. The story needs to be subtle with its darkness, and it needs to go slowly in order to pull me in. Heavy-handed torture scenes or lazy “his life was falling apart” setups that are meant to hammer you just make me roll my eyes. Shadows are not powerful things, unless you really start making your audience wonder what could be lurking in them.

 What research did you perform for New Avalon or are the characters and scenes fictionalized versions from your own experience?

New Avalon is made up whole cloth. There are no real people, places, or experiences put into that collection.

 Why short stories? How do you make an emotional impact in only a few pages?

I didn’t actively decide to make a collection until I’d written the first three stories, and at that point I figured if I was going to really write ten stories then I might as well use them to test the waters to see if readers wanted more of this place.

As far as making an emotional impact in a few thousand words, it’s something that takes practice. The first story, “Love is a Broken Clock” has a short wind up, but when you get to the end it drops on your heart like a nine-pound hammer. Other stories, like “Flight of Icarus” take their time whistling and looking anywhere but at you, and just when you think you’re safe they sink a knife in your back.

I noticed that you incorporate characters from diverse backgrounds smoothly into your work. How can other authors succeed in what is called “writing the other”, whether it be women, people of color or people of a different religion or creed?

Practice, and taking a page out of George R. R. Martin’s book. People are people, and you’re the one with creative control. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. these are traits of a character, but no one is defined solely by these things. An easy way to do it is to create characters who have one aspect you don’t understand (say you’re a white writer who wants to create a black character), and other aspects that you do (said character might have a career the author understands, or be from an area of the country that author is familiar with). A great example in my experience is military fiction precisely because of the way people are supposed to be integrated into a single whole (there are huge problems with this in reality, but for fiction the melting pot idea works pretty well). No matter who you are or where you came from, you’re all in the army now.

 What’s your next project? Is there a subject you refuse to touch?

I’m currently working on a novel tentatively titled Old Soldiers. It’s an expansion of two previous short stories (“Heart of the Myrmidon” now out-of-print, and “Gods and Heroes” which should be coming out in the Golden Age anthology from Long Count Press in Fall 2015). The short version is that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where mankind has been driven underground by the fallout of its first war with an alien race. It follows Pollux, one of several experimental soldiers designed to fight the Hyperion, as he tries to cope with a world where he doesn’t seem to have a purpose. Until, that is, people start trying to kill him. It quickly becomes a race against time and the resources of a shadowy conspiracy as Pollux and his allies try to figure out what it is they’ve uncovered before it’s too late.

As far as subjects I won’t touch, if my name is going on it the project has to be up to my standards. I’ve written for a huge variety of genres though, and I’m not shy about crossing those lines if that’s what the next project calls for.

 I found your characters and their situations to be relatable and therefore, more sympathetic and tragic. How can authors prevent falling into the usual stereotypes when creating characters and plotlines in their stories?

I almost ran into this with “The Steel Second” when I realized it was quickly becoming a disposable woman revenge story. The best way for you to avoid stereotypes and cliché is to make sure you’re aware of them so you don’t put them into your stories without thinking about it (spending a few dozen hours on TVTropes.com is a great help with this). As far as making good characters you need to dig deep and make sure they’re real people, with goals, aspirations, quirks, etc. If you find yourself creating “hard-nosed cop” ask yourself why. Why is the most powerful question you have, and you should always have an answer.

 What’s missing in fiction? What shape would you like to see the future of dark fiction to take?

Aside from minor nit picks and style differences, I’d like to see people stop pulling their punches. I think all too often we get caught up in action scenes or sex scenes, but we don’t stop to ask about the real impact those things have and what they say about a character. If you can kill four men, whether it was self defense or not, and go on with your day what does that say about you? If you can enjoy partners without any emotional connection, why is that? Too often we’re caught up in spectacle without asking what the fallout of that spectacle should rightly be.

Who is your main inspiration?

I’ve been inspired by a lot of different authors over the years, but I think the finishing touch and the one who helped me find my voice was Simon R. Green.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?

There isn’t any one thing. Each project has different challenges unique to it, and overcoming them is part of the satisfaction that comes with the job.

Thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you like to mention?

Just that while authors are the ones with the magic, the readers are the ones with the power. They’re the ones who make what we do worthwhile, and without them we’re just telling stories to ourselves.

Pick up a copy of New Avalon: Love and Loss in the City of Steam on Amazon

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