It’s not often a story can become manipulated by its own setting. Nor is it a bad thing when it does. On the outside, The Doomsday Vault by Steven Harper looks like a romantic Steampunk adventure filled with mystery, monsters and mayhem. But on the inside, it is a well crafted examination of the Victorian age existence in a wondrous world driven by technology. Social protocols are not just part of the mood here, but a contributing factor in the plot. This is less of a horror story, and more of an examination of how traditional etiquette can still impact the most awkward setting and influence one’s judgment.
The streets of London are swarming with zombies. A horrific disease known as the clockwork plague brings about two distinct yet contradictory results once one is infected. For those individuals with unique intelligence and a knack for tinkering, the plague accelerates the mind tenfold to the point where these people become so brilliant and inventive that their minds soon teeter on the thin line between genius and madness – earning them the name “Clockworker”. But the infected people on the other end of the spectrum with little or no mechanical aptitude are less fortunate. They merely become the decaying walking corpses offensively known as zombies.
The Third Ward is an organization working covertly for the Crown. Having been around since the reign of King George the Fourth, the band of secret agents travel the globe seeking out mad inventors of horrific machines in hopes of keeping their devices out of the wrong hands. This is where the reader is left to his or her own moral judgment when determining who should wield this power of authority. Just like the gray area between the Clockworker’s genius and madness, the balance of power is equally volatile.
Hidden deep within a secret underground facility beneath London, The Doomsday Vault is where the most dangerous of these creations are secured. Using any means possible, including some of the very inventions they are trying to secure, the Third Ward is faced with their most fierce foe to date. A mad Clockworker has devised a way of controlling zombies through music and is now threatening the city by controlling an army of the undead.
Some of the character dialogue is reminiscent of what one might hear in the theatre. Rather than interrupting the story with a narrative back-story, the reader often has opportunities to learn about the past through the dialogue. Done skillfully, this is not an annoyance. In fact, this unique perspective allows the reader to build a relationship with some of the characters as they grow together instead of being interrupted when something needs to be clarified. The Doomsday Vault is an intricate adventure with many plot twists and turns. But by allowing the reader to join in on character discoveries and feel a part of it, Harper has ensured the fullest literary experience.
The character development seems quick at times. Yet it is ever-changing as the plot progresses and this allows the reader to accept the growth and still maintain a commitment throughout the story. Alice Michaels is twenty-two years old, long past the age in which proper women should already be married and the likelihood of finding a suitable husband is all but gone. The clockwork plague had taken her mother and brother over a decade earlier, while leaving her father crippled and in her care. Alice’s shadowy past has all but assured her of growing old and alone. Then, in from the United States, sails Gavin Ennock. He is a poor cabin boy whose airship was attacked by pirates, leaving him stranded in the streets of London. Even a magical voice and talent for playing the violin does not counter the caste differences of Victorian society, making the relationship between Gavin and Alice awkward if not taboo. And choosing sides between the Third Ward and the Clockworkers may determine just how this relationship will turn out.
Steven Harper has taken a romantic Steampunk adventure and turned it into an engrossing account of Victorian society. The Doomsday Vault has its share of contraptions, chaos and horrors, but its true identity lies in the social decorum of the characters as well as the moral decisions of those in control. Readers should be satisfied with the gratifying conclusion. But with additional volumes of this saga to follow, readers are also left with a lot more to look forward to.