Monday, April 13, 2015

Lovely and Light, a Ripping Yarn

Review: Harry Takes Off, Steve Turnbull, Kindle Edition

Ripping yarns* were stirring adventure stories in which plucky heroes triumphed over adversity (or sometimes simply died bravely). These thrilling tales, often set in iconic locations in the British Empire (Victorian London, Depression-era Yorkshire, British Africa, India during the Raj) or in places where the British Army was currently deployed (WWI and WWII Europe, South America, North Africa and the Middle East), were a staple for many schoolboy readers, beginning in the Edwardian era.

Harry Takes Off is a light homage to such stories, but this novella gives the yarn a steam-punk twist, and hands the action off to the distaff side. Turnbull's universe posits a steam-driven technology that includes anti-gravity to loft riveted-iron steam-powered aircraft into the skies. Given anti-gravity, aircraft technologies include helium-buoyed armored Zeppelins and Harry's own ornithopter with its flapping wings, as well as more "conventional" craft.

I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction of the two heroines, Harriet (the eponymous Harry of the title) and her adopted sister, Khuwelsa, both with each other and with the denizens of steam-punk-Edwardian East Africa (British- and German-dominated Zanzibar and Kenya). Because Khuwelsa is black, and both are female, we see the fun that ensues as the girls are repeatedly underestimated by the German Army. I especially liked the way Khuwelsa as the engineer for their 'thopter is essential to their eventual triumphnot because she is black or female, but because of her demonstrated engineering skill!

The girl fliers happen to observe the German Army in Kenya preparing an invasion, and set out to warn their father who is stationed in Kenya. They must survive being driven to ground by German aircraft, captured by the Germans, and separated from each other by the prejudice of their captors. Even when they finally manage to warn the British Army in Zanzibar, they are ignored because they are female, and have to take matters into their own hands. 

The ending of the tale is appropriately triumphant—in a word, ripping! I enjoyed the novella so much, I immediately purchased the Kindle versions of Turnbull's Maliha Anderson mysteries, set in the same steam-punk universe.

Brava, Harriet and Khuwelsa! And bravo, Steve Turnbull!

* The BBC series Ripping Yarns was a spoof of the entire genre, written by Monty Python alums Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, with Palin as the lead character in a new yarn each week. With titles like "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" and "Across the Andes by Frog", Ripping Yarns captured the essence of such stories, but exaggerated the characteristics of the genre, with "screamingly funny" results.