Dave Freer’s THE STEAM MOLE is the sequel to CUTTLEFISH (reviewed here). Many of the same characters are present, including Tim Barnabas, Clara Calland, and her mother Mary (a chemist with a doctorate who has a formula that will literally change the world), but the setting has changed; instead of them all being cooped up on the coal-powered Cuttlefish, they’re now in Western Australia (called “Westralia”).
At the end of CUTTLEFISH, Dr. Calland and her daughter were dropped off to make some sort of deal for Dr. Calland’s formula. However, the Imperial English government still wants that formula for itself and will do anything — literally anything it possibly can — to stop Dr. Calland from giving that formula to Westralia.
This is the main reason Dr. Calland lies near death at the start of THE STEAM MOLE, originally diagnosed with a case of the flu. Yet there’s something badly wrong here, something Clara knows even if no one else does, but of course no one’s willing to listen to her as she’s still a teenager.
This is why she goes looking for her buddy (and love interest) Tim, thinking he’s stayed with the Cuttlefish as he is, after all, a crewman there. But the Cuttlefish crew has split up, mostly because they need money in order to ply their trade as they used up all of their fuel and just about every other possible thing as well just getting Clara and her mother to Westralia.
Tim has gone off to work on a steam mole (used for excavation), as the way it’s powered is sensible to anyone who’s worked on a coal-powered submarine. But the Westralians aren’t exactly friendly to anyone with a black skin, which Tim finds out in a big hurry; worse, the crew he’s with contains none of his friends and shipmates, which is why things escalate out of control in a hurry.
While Tim is able to escape from his racist temporary crewmates, it’s not without cost as he’s forced to endure the Westralian desert and cross during the day — a big no-no in Westralia due to how hot and humid the climate has become due to “the Big Melt.” And because Tim’s without much in the way of supplies, most especially water, this quickly complicates things.
Clara, of course, doesn’t know any of this when she sets out to find Tim. But she figures it out quickly (partly because she’s smart, partly because she has nowhere else to turn), and goes in search of Tim.
Meanwhile, Dr. Calland’s condition improves, but she’s still not in any shape to hand over the formula. This is why the royal Duke who heads the British Imperial Empire’s secret service decides that there’s only one way left to get a handle on Dr. Calland and stopping her from giving her precious formula to Westralia– and that’s by bringing her ex-husband, Clara’s father, to Westralia as a bargaining chip.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on — first, Clara and Tim are both alone and must show initiative and fortitude if they’re ever to be together again, much less stay alive in the process. Second, Dr. Calland has to figure out what to do with her formula, especially as she’s unwilling to deal with the Duke’s men (who are akin to terrorists in her view, though the word is never used). Third, Clara and Tim must figure out what to do about Clara’s father, as Clara has absolutely no intention of leaving her father in the Duke’s hands once she finds out about it.
All involved must make alliances quickly. This means they must depend on their wits, as well as their past association with the Cuttlefish and its crew, to make sure that the good guys win and the bad guys definitely lose.
In other words, THE STEAM MOLE, like CUTTLEFISH before it, is a very strong action-adventure novel with just a hint of realistic romance between Clara and Tim. Both are strong-willed, energetic people who are self-reliant and smart. They have just enough differences to prove intriguing and know how to work alone or together, which is a big plus for any couple — much less a couple of mid-teens like Tim and Clara.
But the best part of THE STEAM MOLE lies in the characterization of Dr. Calland, Clara’s mother. Forced by circumstances to be apart from her daughter for a long period of time, Dr. Calland refuses to pine away despite her brush with death. Instead, she more or less adopts one of the local young women, Linda Darlington, and encourages Linda to learn about math and science. And because of Dr. Calland’s shining example (women really can do math and science), this young woman learns that it’s not only OK to be smart, it’s actually a wonderful thing — a life-affirming thing, to be exact.
This all goes to show that one person — one individual — in the right time and place can make a huge difference, which is a variation on the same theme introduced in CUTTLEFISH. This is an extremely empowering message amidst all of the action and adventure going on, yet it doesn’t slow the tale down whatsoever.
That’s a really difficult thing to do, but Freer pulls it off with aplomb.
Overall, the balance here is excellent. The action and adventure click right along. The prose reads well and easily. The world is solidly built and makes perfect sense (as it should; Freer himself is a scientist, though his field is ichthyology), while the characters include many you can fully root for along with a few fully hissable villains . . . really, what’s not to like about THE STEAM MOLE?
In fact, the only bad thing about THE STEAM MOLE is that no sequels are planned as of this time, partly because Pyr only contracted with Freer for two novels. My hope is that these two novels will sell well enough that Freer will wish to write another one, as there are obviously many more stories waiting to be told in this universe — most especially from the viewpoints of Clara, Tim, and Dr. Calland’s protegée, Linda.
— reviewed by Barb