In The Engineer’s Apprentice, J.R. Martin envisions an alternate version of the U.S. in the period roughly corresponding to the Civil War era.
In Dallas, Texas, Issa Obasi, son of an African General, is a steam engineer who has succeeded despite the era’s racism. As the book opens, brilliant Asian-American Annie Sakdavong, who lives with race bias and misogyny, applies to become Issa’s apprentice. Although the pair start with strikes against them, they decide to give the relationship a try.
The mastering of steam power has given the wealthy technology akin to the dawn of the 21st century. However, the steam is created with uranium, and the poor are being decimated from sickness caused by working in the uranium mines. Annie’s engineering ambition is to create steam-driven automatons to harvest uranium, saving thousands of lives. However, much like today’s controversy concerning AI, ethical problems with producing the kind of thinking automatons needed for the job loom large.
Government factions want to thwart the pair’s efforts because of economic considerations, and shady characters seek to profit by stealing Annie’s and Issa’s project blueprints and notes. Murder and mayhem; steam-powered swords and pistols; spelunking and horse chases; and supernatural elements add to the adventure, which includes forbidden romance.
Martin creates a fantasy America close enough to reality that readers will feel that if the Industrial Revolution had taken a slightly different turn, they could be living in this world. While most steampunk fiction is set in England or big cities during the Victorian Era, placing the story in the American Southwest adds an intriguing uniqueness to the tale.
Readers will root for Annie and Issa, but they might question how the couple could achieve such accomplishments in this biased, chauvinistic society. Also, more background and purpose is needed for Issa’s housekeeper, Mrs. Miller (think Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea).
Still, the novel is an entertaining introduction to the steampunk genre, and aficionados should enjoy it as well.