The Iron City is the industrial city at the heart of an empire ruled by the wealthy and the politically powerful. An urban dystopia where the poor and the disenfranchised are used for cheap labour.
The rich elite plot and scheme amongst themselves, while one of their number plans something terrible, and aims to use the rebel faction of idealistic freedom fighters known as the Fist of Truth as a pawn in his scheme. Meanwhile, a young man inadvertently steals an item which may bring those plans tumbling down. In the run-down slums of the Skein, one woman will lead the Fist in a daring plan to rescue their leader, and in so doing, set up a confrontation which will have long lasting implications for the entire city.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I grew up in the industrial heart of England and some of my earliest memories are being taken on school trips to see the old steam trains and earliest mechanical inventions. Aside from that was the architecture that was still around as a reminder of those days. All of this was a huge inspiration for me in writing my novel, which is set in a steampunk, semi-victorian setting.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I knew that I wanted at least one strong female character, as there are never enough of those in books. As it turned out, I ended up with several of them. The main character, Abel, however, is the one that is meant to be more identifiable. He is the common representative, living in a harsh, difficult city where the privileged get everything and the poor must suffer.
A blanket of inky darkness lay across the crumbling and time-worn buildings of the Skein. Night had fallen two hours earlier and the streets were, for the most part, quiet and empty. Shadows clung to the dirty brick façades of the dreary and tired tenements, their shapeless forms broken only by the flickering of gas lanterns that sent pulsing, dancing pools of light out over the cracked grey cobblestone of the streets. Ominous black clouds obscured much of the moon, though in places, lances of thin, silvery phosphorescence pierced the drifting gloom. Stray dogs, wandering forlornly, would occasionally bark, splintering the silence.
In some places, where pubs and taverns plied their trade, life could still be observed. Drunken forms, swaying home from a night of revelry meant to ease their pitiful existences, would stagger from corner to corner. Voices would rise in song, or argument, the shrill noise echoing around the labyrinthine streets and avenues. Light still spilled from windows here, though it was a dull, subdued light, meant to lull people in, rather than provide warmth.
Still, for most people, the night wrapped them in slumber, and it would be many hours before the trials of the day pulled them from their beds.
Above one such silent street, known to the denizens of the Skein as Knocker’s Way, where the stained brick of a three story tenement met the sloping, tiled roof, shadows moved. One of them detached itself from the darker shadows beside the chimney and scurried across the angled rooftop. When the clouds parted briefly, letting a sliver of light break apart the clinging darkness, the formless shadow resolved into the shape of a young boy. He moved sure-footed across the cracked tiles, apparently heedless of the dizzying drop that yawned beside him, until he reached the far edge. Here the tiles jutted out above the gaping blackness of a narrow alleyway, a small gap between two buildings that was filled with piled refuse. The boy dropped to his hands and knees and peered across the chasm at the building opposite.
He was perhaps thirteen or fourteen and in that brief glimpse it was obvious that he was dishevelled and unkempt. A ragged old flat cap perched atop his head, and lank, thick dark hair hung down beneath it, plastered to his skull. He wore a black jacket atop a faded and dirty white shirt. Dusty, half-mast trousers that barely reached his ankles covered his legs and a pair of roughly stitched leather shoes completed his outfit. His face, framed by the silvery glow of the moonlight was thin and gaunt and covered in a layer of grime. It was roughly outlined, angular and sharp but still with the softness of youth. There was not yet any hint of facial hair on his chin or cheeks. Beneath the clothes, he appeared thin and lank.
The boy crouched beside one of the iron drains and peered down at the neighbouring building for a brief moment, then turned and waved. A second shadow, this one a little taller, dashed across the sloping surface and joined him. The second boy was more heavily built, a fact that could perhaps be attributed to his age - two, maybe three years older than the other. His shoulders sloped down from a wide neck, then merged with arms that were thick and ropey with muscle. He was dressed much the same as the younger, though he was without a cap, and his head was shaved. Unlike his companion, the chin of this boy was shadowed by a few day’s growth of ginger stubble. He knelt beside the other boy and glanced down at one of the darkened windows of the house.
The first boy stirred and turned to his companion. “That’s the place Abel,” he whispered. There was a hint of excitement in his voice and the last word came out almost as a squeak.
The older boy raised his hand, rubbing at the stubble on his chin for a moment before replying. “I don’t like this Jimmy,” he said at last. Unlike the smaller boy, there was no sign of any eagerness in his words. He sounded worried and nervous. “You sure he don’t have no dogs?”
Jimmy shook his head quickly. “I told you Abel, I watched that place for the last two days. I ain’t seen no dogs, nor any hired muscle. And when the ol’ fella came out, he was dressed all fine like. He looked more like one of them blokes from up in the Heights. Top hat and cane. And I swear Abel, just afore he left, I saw him tuck away a pod key. It weren’t no iron key either.”
Abel grunted at this, but peered back down at the building, scrutinising it with a little more interest. “If you ain’t seeing things and he had a key like that, then he has to have a pod in there. Maybe a Gravewood model even.”
Jimmy nodded excitedly and grinned, his yellowed teeth gleaming in the fading moonlight. “Yeah! We can lift one of them easy. In an out while the old duffer sleeps. Winnie’ll treat us like kings if we bring back a Gravewood, right?”
Abel smiled at that, though it was a thin smile, tinged with doubt, then nodded. The thought of coming home with a piece of machinery as expensive as a Gravewood pod was enough for him to push away his doubts. Or rather, squash them beneath a wave of need. He hadn’t had a good meal for as long as he could remember and they were running out of coals back at the squat he and the other boys were living in. The money they would get for selling tonight’s potential bounty would be enough to see them through the next few months. He rose from his crouch and pointed to the drainpipe nearby. “Come on then, let’s get it done. And you just see to calmin’ down. Ain’t no sense gettin’ all overeager like. He might be an old duffer, but that don’t mean he’s a heavy sleeper.”
Jimmy nodded at this, though there did not appear to Abel to be any diminishing of the boy’s twitching excitement. He moved to the rusting iron pipe and wrapped his lanky arms and legs around it. He moved down rapidly, with all the skill of a squirrel. Abel followed more slowly, his bigger bulk making him far less agile. There was still something niggling at the back of his mind. It was same thing that had been bothering him all day, ever since Jimmy had come back with his report. If it was true that the old man was as well off as the boy made him out to be, why was he living here in The Skein, instead of up in the Heights? More to the point, why was he living here with no protection? There were folk in the Skein that would knife you in the gut for the shoes on your feet and think nothing of it. Abel had a scar or two himself to prove it, and he didn’t have two brass bits to rub together. It didn’t make sense. But Jimmy had been adamant, and the potential haul was rich enough to chance it.
He reached the bottom at last and dropped the last couple of feet to land on the uneven cobbles of the alley below. The two boys scurried across to the shadows on the other side and peered up. During his watch, Jimmy had noted the window on the third floor. It was open, just an inch or two, but enough for a set of slender fingers to squeeze through. Likely the old man didn’t think it was a risk, being up as high as it was, and had kept it open enough to let in a little air. Well, it was his mistake. The two of them had gotten into higher places before with little difficulty.
”Once we’re in, cut the chatter,” Abel whispered. “Got it?” Jimmy nodded somberly in response. The small boy spat onto his hands then gripped the drainpipe on the wall and began his ascent.
Going up was a lot more difficult than going down, and his progress was slower. The pipe was slick with grease and slime, and in places it was rusted almost completely through. Abel watched him until he was a decent way up, then set off after him. The drainpipe was several feet away from the window they needed, and getting across to that would take some skilful manoeuvring. They climbed in silence until at last, Jimmy craned his neck and whispered down that he was in place.
Abel moved to just below the smaller boy, then wrapped one arm all the way around the pipe, bracing himself in place. With his other hand, he reached out, holding it palm upwards. Jimmy placed one foot gingerly onto the hand, testing it briefly before resting his full weight on it. Abel grunted, the muscles in his arms straining. Jimmy leaned outwards, holding onto the pipe with one hand. “Ready!” he muttered. The two of them counted to three quietly and then Jimmy leaped. As he did so, Abel pushed with his hand, allowing the younger boy to use it as a springboard. It gave him the reach he needed and as he moved through the air, his hands shot out, grabbing onto the lip of the window. He swung beneath it for a moment, then heaved himself up onto the narrow ledge.
Abel scrambled upwards, taking the place that the smaller boy had vacated. His job was a little more difficult, not having the benefit of a bracing hand beneath him. His height was an advantage however. He pressed his left foot on one of the metal moorings that held the pipe in place, then crouched a little before leaping. His long arms sprang out and his fingers closed over the ledge.
Jimmy was already sliding his fingers beneath the open window as Abel scrambled up beside him, and a moment later, the window had been slid up far enough for the two of them to scramble inside.
The room beyond the window was pitch black, forcing the boys to crouch in silence for long minutes until their eyes adjusted. Gradually, the contents of the room came into view. It was a bedroom. Abel could see a single bed pushed up against the wall. There was a mattress, sagging a little in the middle, but no sheets. Clearly it was not being used. Opposite the bed was an old oak wardrobe. It was one of the fancy ones, ornately carved and sturdy, but it had long since lost it’s sheen, and Abel would not have been surprised to find it was starting to rot. These old tenements were prone to damp. The floor was wooden, covered in part by an old, faded rug. Abel nodded to the door and the two boys moved stealthily towards it.
Beyond was a dark corridor terminating at one end in a steep staircase. Two other doors led off the hallway, the nearest perhaps ten feet from where they were. They crept out into the hall, scurrying silently to the door. Abel placed his ear to the wooden panels, listening intently. Jimmy shuffled his feet and the older boy shot him an irritated glance. Jimmy froze at once and Abel returned his ear to the wood. He spent a moment concentrating and at last was rewarded with the sound of someone snoring quietly. He indicated the next door with a slice of his hand and they crept along the edge of the hall, as silent as mice.
The ritual was repeated at the next door, only this time, Abel was greeted with silence. He pulled his ear away and reached for the handle, turning it quietly. It gave a soft, though alarming creak, and Abel paused, holding his breath. He was greeted only with silence. Swallowing, he twisted the handle the rest of the way and opened the door.
Inside was another bedroom, much the same as the one they had left, only this time with a double bed. Sitting shoved up against the wall opposite the bed was a heavy wooden desk, varnished, with drawers set into it on either side. On top of the desk was the very thing they had come here looking for. It was a gleaming brass box, finished with silver bolts. In front of the box, and connected to it by a thick tube of metal, was a pair of expertly woven gloves, each one covered in small, circular copper disks, each one just barely touching it’s neighbour. Resting to one side of the box was a pair of shining metal goggles with thick lenses. Another tube of metal, this one much thinner, led from the goggles into a slot on the back of the box. Finishing the strange contraption was a large oval of metal standing upright on top of the metal box. Fitted inside the oval was a thick, slightly curved sheet of glass. It was a Hive pod, and one of the more expensive models, just as they had hoped and predicted.
Jimmy had a look of pure glee on his face as they flitted quietly into the room. Two sets of hands reached out, running over the gleaming metal finish of the box and up the curved sides of the viewing window. Both boys were giddy with excitement, and Jimmy was forced to clap a hand over his mouth to stop himself from giggling. It was enough to sober Abel quickly and he slashed a hand downwards towards the door twice in quick succession. It was the signal for Jimmy to keep watch. The younger boy moved to position and opened the door a crack so that he could peer out into the hallway.
Abel reached into the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out a bundle of thin, tangled twine. He spent a moment shaking it out then set about fitting it over the station. When he was done, it resembled a harness of sorts, with two loops of twine on the front, into which he slipped his arms. He hoisted it up onto his back, grunting a little at the weight. The Gravewood pods were among the lightest that money could buy, but they were still unwieldy and bulky and he knew it was not going to be easy climbing down the drainpipe with it on his back. They would have to chance the stairs and hope to find a window that they could unlatch on the bottom floor.
The risk was minimal, he decided. The home owner was fast asleep, and it appeared that Jimmy was right; there was nobody else here. As long as they did nothing foolish, they could be downstairs and out of the house with nobody the wiser. He crept over to the door and made a series of quick motions with his hands. Jimmy nodded his understanding.
The hallway was just as dark and as silent as they had left it, and they made their way along it to the stairs with little difficulty. As Abel stepped down onto the first step however, it groaned loudly in protest and the old wood sagged inwards from his weight. Both boys froze, staring at the bedroom door behind them in sudden panic. Neither of them moved for several minutes, but at last, when it was clear they had not been heard, they let out a deep breath of relief and turned back to the stairs. They shuffled quickly to the outer edge of the steps and began moving downwards. This time, there was no noise. They were going to do it. Abel could feel his elation rising and he struggled to keep it under control, at least until they were free of the house.
It was as they rounded the bend at the halfway point in the stairs, that everything came crashing down. Jimmy was just ahead of him, and as Abel took his first step, the younger boy suddenly stopped dead. A voice, deep and powerful, and filled with menace, drifted up from the bottom of the stairs. “You thieving little bastards. You are going to want to put that pod down nice and slow, or I’ll fill you both full of holes.”
Abel, terror suddenly lancing through him, peered over the younger boy’s shoulder into the darkness below and could just see the shadowy outline of a tall, powerfully built man. A tiny shaft of moonlight breaking through from a high window fell on the cold metal barrel of a pistol gripped in his hand and pointing directly at them. “Run, Jimmy!” he screamed, and without waiting for a response, turned and bolted back up the stairs.
He could hear the younger boy dashing up behind him, panting and gasping in panic. A loud roar crashed over him and he saw a sudden and brief flash of light over his shoulder. Something smashed heavily into the brick wall behind him, showering both boys with dust. Abel had never been so scared in all his life, and the fear that was pulsing through his veins gave him extra momentum. He reached the top of the stairs in a few bounds and turned into the hallway, skidding around it in an almost blind panic.
”Albert!” the voice yelled. Abel could hear feet pounding on the stairs as the man with the gun gave chase. “Get your arse out ‘ere!”
Their only chance was the drainpipe after all. He wasn’t sure they could make it, but they had been left with no other option. It was either that, or getting caught, and that was no choice at all. He knew only too well what happened to thieves, particularly those that came from the Skein with no money or influence to protect them. He briefly considered dropping the pod, but even now he was loathe to let go of the prize. If they could only get out of the window and onto the drainpipe, he felt sure they could shinny down it quick enough to avoid the gun. The pistol needed reloading after every shot, he was certain, and even now he could hear the man cursing as he struggled to slot another slug into the chamber.
He slid to a stop outside the bedroom door and flung himself inside. Jimmy, his face pale and terrified in the dim light, dashed in after him. He took a brief moment to slam the door shut, then bolted for the window. “I’ll go first, but you follow me right quick. Don’t even think about it, just get down that pipe.” Jimmy could only nod in response. He was darting fearful looks at the door, as though expecting at any moment that the man would come bursting through it, aiming the long, dark barrel of the pistol at them.
Abel wasted no more time in clambering through the window and clinging to the face of the wall as he inched quickly along the lip. He sensed Jimmy moving out beside him, trying to move along it and out of the way of the window. There was no room, not until Abel jumped. He tensed for a moment, preparing to leap.
”Gotcha, you little weasel!” The voice startled Abel enough that for a moment his fingers left the wall and he was forced to scrabble to maintain his balance. He heard Jimmy yell beside him and he turned his head, staring in horror as the younger boy leaned backwards precariously. The boy’s arms wind-milled in a frantic effort to save himself. Abel made a sudden lunge, his hand reaching desperately for Jimmy’s jacket.
Everything seemed to slow down. He could see his friend tipping slowly backwards, the face a mask of pure terror. The man - whose round, scarred face was now in full view - was reaching out of the window, swiping for the boy. Abel saw his own hand grasp at the jacket. But it was too far. His fingers missed by less than an inch and they swung down uselessly. “No!” he screamed, his voice breaking as he watched Jimmy tilt back a few more degrees. The angle was enough that the boy’s feet slipped forward, sending him reeling backwards.
For a split second, less time than it took for Abel to draw a breath, Jimmy was framed in the silvery glow of the moon. His arms reaching for the older boy and a look of child-like pleading on his face. But there was nothing Abel could do. Time resumed its normal course, and Jimmy was gone. He did not even have time to scream as he vanished from view. Abel heard a sickening crunch as his friend hit the ground, three stories below.
Abel’s heart thudded in his chest. He could not understand what had happened. Only a few minutes ago, both he and Jimmy had been filled with the glow of success, their prize in hand. Now Jimmy was dead. He knew it as sure as he knew the sun was going to rise in the morning.
He cast a glance at the man, whose face seemed as shocked as Abel felt. He was staring downward, his eyes wide. Abel saw his chance. He leaped, grabbing the drainpipe and clinging to it like a leach. The act seemed to stir the man out of his surprise and he turned his ugly face in the boy’s direction. Abel watched as the gun rose. He stared into the black barrel, and counted his next heartbeat, knowing it would be his last. The finger squeezed. The hammer drew back. He watched it’s slow arc, unable to move. At the last moment, as the hammer reached it’s zenith, he squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry Jimmy,” he whispered. He heard a click, and then…nothing.
Abel opened his eyes, blinking in surprise. The man swore and drew the gun back, fumbling to open the chamber and check the shell inside. Abel wasted no time. Moving faster than he had ever moved in his life, he began a frantic scramble down the drainpipe. The weight of the pod on his back was all but forgotten. In a few moments, his feet touched the ground. He cast the window above one final glance, the man’s hateful face staring back at him in undisguised fury, then turned and fled.
“I’m sorry Jimmy,” he said again, and the tears began to fall.
John Donlan was born in 1977 in Manchester, England. Growing up in a city that was synonymous with the Industrial Revolution gave him an appreciation of that era. The architecture, the rapid growth of industry and the changing attitudes of the population of the British Isles. It was this interest that eventually led to his first novel, a steampunk thriller named Iron City Rebels. He now lives in Scotland with his partner, and is looking forward future writing endeavours. Currently he is working on the second volume in the Iron City series: Iron City Uprising.
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