Today we have our first review by our new reviewer Lloyd. You can learn more about him in the bio at the end of the post. Please join me in giving him a big welcome!
At its core, Precious Metals is a rescue story rather than a romance. As it opens, young Joseph Starling is on the brink of death — robbed, beaten, and freezing. He’s brought to the North West Mounted Police station at the head of the Chilkoot Pass, where he is warmed back to life by Constable Paul Benson, the tried and true way — skin to skin.
Benson is part of the Mountie detachment ensuring every prospector team has a 12-month supply of essentials for survival. A restless settlement of miners has built up, waiting for their inspection and their turn to head out onto the Chilkoot Pass and the hundreds of miles of wilderness to Dawson City. Joseph is carried into the camp with nothing but his life.
With the aid of a special mining machine Joseph and his two brothers had struck gold, but were robbed by a gang of thieves. Now one brother is dead, and the youngest kidnapped to operate the specialized machinery. Joseph must get to Dawson City to save his little brother who will be murdered when the villains learn he doesn’t know how to operate the stolen machine.
As much as Joseph is determined to get back to Dawson Creek, the regulations about supplies prevent him. In a desperate attempt to beat the thieves to the gold fields, Corporal Benson is assigned to escort Joseph over a perilous trail to Skagway, by ship to Juneau, and then an airship to Dawson City. It’s a terrific ticking clock.
While Precious Metals is presented as a standalone novel, after reading it I felt I needed to back up and read the first story in this series, Noble Metals. Both are set in the same steampunk version of the waning days of the Klondike gold rush, and critical world-building elements present in the first book are important to the second, especially the general Klondike atmosphere of gold fever, and steampunk elements such as how the “mechs” work, eight-legged mechanical spiders powered by steam, used for transport of heavy loads. I recommend reading these books in order.
The story is told in alternating POV, each shift clearly defined in chapters. Witt handles the dual POV well, and the story is stronger for having both perspectives.
Witt has been meticulous in her historical/geographical research and it shines throughout the story. Telling details of the gold rush, the rough culture it created from Seattle to Dawson City, and the harsh territory men had to cross to get there, provide a wonderful balance to the more fantastical steampunk overlay. In fact, the fierce natural environment was the most dominant character in the story for this reader — ever present and oppressive. Witt’s depiction of a merciless environment is relentlessly wrought, full of the danger of a cold, unforgiving climate and agonizing foot travel over deadly terrain.
Because the rescue adventure and “man vs nature” elements provide the spine of this story, there is less pressure on the romantic arc or on character growth in general to deliver the story’s punch. Still, a disappointment for this reader was that growth is not particularly strong for either MC. Joseph’s determination and ingenuity with things mechanical is a fairly flat constant throughout. In contrast, Paul the Mountie starts with a “like it or not, I had my orders” sense of policeman’s duty but arrives effortlessly at a much larger and more difficult decision about loyalty without hesitation, let alone self-examination, which rang a note untrue of his character.
The impasse between Joseph’s determination to trek on to Dawson City and the unbending supplies policy enforced by the Mounties was convincingly constructed. Whether intentional or not, Witt captures something of the Canadian penchant for rigid bureaucracy, which I found exasperating and a little smug — very in character! In terms of the story, however, the depiction creates its own problem. The impasse was so well defined that the solution — the commanding officer’s sudden and unilateral decision to assign Cpl. Benson to escort Joseph to Juneau — struck me as teetering on the brink of author convenience.
I had other concerns with the story. The dialogue between Joseph and Paul sometimes rang heavy and repetitive. The choreography of the final confrontation was hard for me to accept. Both heroes commit tactical mistakes unworthy of a Mountie and a man who’d already been beaten and robbed twice. Yes, the mistakes intensified their “terrible trouble” to a higher level for a while, but it felt like artificial contrivance to this reader.
Those issues aside, Precious Metals has much to recommend it. The author creates a compelling historical setting, the steampunk elements (including Joseph’s elegantly crafted artificial leg) add imaginative zest. The main characters are truly likable, and if any two men earn their HEA simply by surviving to save Joseph’s brother, it’s Joseph and Paul.
Note: This book is the second in Witt’s Metals series. The review for the first book, Noble Metals, was written based on the previous version of the story released by a different publisher.
Lloyd credits Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners as the first poem to steal both his heart and his imagination. That was in seventh grade, and he’s never been the same since. At university he devoured LOTR in a single weekend. Then came Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. He’s happily entangled in a life-long love affair with metaphor and the potent mystery of the Hero’s Journey, especially in its metaphysical and psychological aspects. He lives in southern Florida with his husband, reading, working on his next novel, practicing subtle energy healing, wallowing in classical music and celebrating a very active retirement.