Taryn understood the plight of the biomaton. They were slaves, humans who needed clockwork parts in order to survive. Their modified bodies somehow made them less than human, and that was the part she did not understand. Why weren’t they human? What did losing a limb and having it replaced have to do with one’s humanity?
Taryn Roft lives with a secret she doesn’t even fully understand herself. After barely surviving a fire as a child, her arm was replaced with a clockwork prosthesis. She is a biomaton. She is also missing six years’ worth of memories between the fire and finding herself on the streets of London. What she can’t remember could change the world.
E.M. Wright’s debut SEDITION (Parliament House Press) is a strong steampunk adventure that starts out with some fascinating worldbuilding and character exploration before hurtling into a heady tale full of clockwork cyborgs (called biomatons), airship privateers, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and more than a few mad scientists. Fans of steampunk looking for the familiar set dressings will find no shortage of things to delight, but SEDITION is not a novel that falls into cliché. The world Wright has created is fully realized and feels very lived-in. Whether it’s Grafton’s School of Mechanicks, aboard the airship Dauntless, or at the suitably ominously-named Black Castle, the settings in SEDITION are painted in vivid multi-sensory detail and easy for the reader to imagine.
As we meet her, Taryn has done well for herself, hiding her mechanical arm from her adoptive family and her classmates at Grafton’s School of Mechanicks. The life she has carved out for herself all comes crashing down following a chance encounter with an airship privateer who discovers her secret, though, and she finds herself wrenched away to face an uncertain and very likely unpleasant fate.
Biomatons, you see, exist not just as an underclass, but are considered non-human by their masters. Legally, they are property, bought and sold as readily as any machine. How exactly this came to be the case remains unrevealed, though it is hinted at that this arrangement exists only in Great Britain; France, we’re told, does not have biomaton technology. In the roughly forty years since the technology was invented, though, biomatons have become the source of manual labour driving the economic engine of the British Empire, working in roles from heavy industry to household staff for the wealthy. There are biomaton gladiatorial combat rings, and particularly well-crafted or unique biomatons are even thought of as prized collectables in certain circles. As luck would have it, Taryn’s provenance makes her something very special indeed.
I was left wondering how someone becomes a biomaton, though. When faced with a life of mindless slavery, why would anyone suffering an amputation injury would choose clockwork prosthesis? In one particularly gruesome case in the story, the conversion from human to biomaton is far from consensual, inflicted upon a healthy and hale victim as a show of cruelty, malice, and dominance. But surely this cannot be the norm? It’s unclear if there’s something in British law that governs how a free citizen becomes property when so injured; these aren’t cadavers with no rights being rebuilt, revived, and sold off. I found this to be a bit of a gap in the otherwise splendid worldbuilding. One hopes this is addressed in the next book in the series.
That said, SEDITION works well as a thinkpiece on discrimination. I think it’s easy for writers to get caught up in daring adventure and petticoats and top hats, and forget the “punk” part of steampunk. A good steampunk story ought to say something about society. SEDITION does this. Taryn belongs to the absolute lowest caste of her society. Only by concealing what she is can she pass herself off as a member of society, but when her secret comes out she finds herself thrust into a world she had scarcely imagined. Having lived both as a biomaton and (for lack of a better term) a normal human, she rails against the injustice of her situation. It works in part because Taryn’s underlying anger is there from the first page; this is not a newfound cause she takes on simply because her secret is revealed. One gets the sense that this was always going to be Taryn’s fight, no matter how she found her way to the field.
Be advised, SEDITION is the first book in a series, and for all the great character work Wright lays out, Taryn’s arc is far from complete. Little is actually resolved at the end of the book, but promises are made and the scaffolding is built for what’s to come. I, for one, intend to be along for the ride.
Trigger & Content Warnings: Abduction, Death of Family Member, Physical and Psychological Torture
My thanks to the author and publisher for providing a complimentary advance copy for review. This in no way influenced my rating or review.
E.M. Wright, Parliament House Press (18 May, 2021)
Chris Patrick Carolan is an author, editor, and hovercraft enthusiast, originally from Glasgow but now based in Calgary, Alberta. He writes science fiction, fantasy (urban and epic), and steampunk, though he has also been known to turn to crime to make ends meet. Crime fiction, that is. His first novel, THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL, was published by Parliament House Press in 2020, and has been selected as a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence ‘Best Crime First Novel’ award. He can be found on Twitter as @cpcwrites but – consider this fair warning – it’s mostly wisecracks about McNuggets and Simpsons memes.