Wild Cards And Iron Horses
by Sheryl Nantus, historical/fantasy (2010)
Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-60928-151-9


Wild Cards And Iron Horses is a Western historical romance with a slight twist to the matter of historical accuracy: the people here create machinery that are probably more advanced than actual history would suggest. We have airships and iron horses, folks.

Jonathan Handleston, an English gambler, arrives in Prosperity Ridge to participate in the Ridge Rocket Stakes, a tournament for card sharps from all over the place. Despite its name, the heavily polluted city forces its folks both local and newcomers to wear metal masks over their faces to avoid choking in all the smog and other air pollutants. First things first, though. Jon sports a pretty nifty metal brace in his crippled right hand that allows him to still use that hand.

After pulling off the glove, he held up the warped, twisted hand for them to see. The flesh itself still held the resemblance of a hand, the four fingers extending from the palm and the thumb jutting out from the side. But the skin was mottled and pale, the scarred and burnt ridges rolling outward from the palm as if a pebble had been dropped into the hand and the ripples frozen in time.

The metal exoskeleton around it caught the dim electrical lights in the workshop, illuminating the brass and steel workings. Extending up each finger with slim bars and bands of metal, it embraced the useless hand and cradled it in a prosthetic grip.

Now, however, he needs to get a spring on the brace replaced or he won't be able to do his thing in the tournament. He has heard that Samantha Weatherly is the best person to go to when it comes to repairing things created using the New Technology, so it is she whom he seeks. She's a beautiful woman with an affinity for machinery, and he is a gorgeous man. But he has a personal mission in coming here, one that he has devoted much of his life into, and she has her own business to tend to. They don't need the distractions, they should keep a professional distance from each other, and they should... oh, as if their hearts will be so sensible, really.

Wild Cards And Iron Horses makes a better story with romance rather than a romantic story. Let me explain. The characters are likable and memorable, but the romance between them is pretty muted when I compare the romantic heat of this story to that typically found in a romance novel. Jon and Samantha interact with each other, yes, but they don't come off like people who are madly in love. Instead, they are more focused on the events around them. It's a bit like real life, in other words - Jon and Samantha have real lives to tend to and they don't have the luxury to spend the whole day thinking of love, heh.

The world building is fantastic and the atmosphere is great. The dust, the machines - all of these and more come together to create a vibrant and exciting setting. So much so that my fascination with the setting keeps me intrigued when the story turns out to be a pretty sluggishly paced one especially in the middle portion. The action ramps up a notch when Jon's enemy starts to cause trouble, but for a long time the story is pretty talk-heavy and introspection-focused.

It's not that I find this book boring. I don't, mostly because the setting is amazingly brought to life here and the main characters are well-drawn enough to keep me reading. I'd like to know more about Jon and Samantha, but what I do know of them is enough to give them adequate degree of depths where I am concerned. The story by itself isn't the most interesting that I've read, I must admit, but the setting makes whatever that is familiar about the story line feel a little bit fresh again.

To conclude, you may want to read Wild Cards And Iron Horses for an unusual and memorable trip down the Wild West, but you may want to also adjust your expectations when it comes to the romance as it isn't the most happening one around.

Rating: 84


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