A friend described THE FALLING MACHINE to me as "part Sherlock Holmes, part Justice League of America, all Steampunk." I think he hit the nail on the head. I'm not a huge steampunk fan -- as a genre I have no problem with it, but I don't tend to be drawn to it -- but this premise intrigued me. And the author's appearance on the #sffwrtcht thread on Twitter a few weeks back helped cement my decision to read it.
It is both a fast read and a good read. I was immediately pulled into the world Mayer has obviously lovingly created. The attention to the details of 1880s New York City pays off in a number of places, from the opening sequence on the still-incomplete Brooklyn Bridge to a visit to the infamous Five Points district. Mayer, sometimes in just a sentence of two, conveys both the shining hope and dirty underbelly of "the greatest city in the world" at that period in time, name-dropping real life personalities like Thomas Alva Edison and inserting his steam-powered super-heroes fairly seamlessly into the real history. He even manages to drop a comment or two about why the existence of steam-powered super-heroes hasn't appreciably changed history ... yet.
Sarah and Tom (The Automaton) are the most full-realized characters in the book, as it should be since they are the focus. Sarah is a great central heroine -- and even better, she's not perfect. She makes mistakes, gets herself into scrapes, and needs the help of friends to get out of some of them. In other words, she's a very real person dealing with out-of-the-ordinary situations... just what I like in my fiction.
I also have to give credit to Mayer for creating a pair of secondary characters I want to know far more about. It would have been easy to let the steam-powered members of The Paragons be mostly one-note riffs on whatever their individual theme happened to be, but he's given almost all of them some deeper characteristic (almost all ... the Submersible feels like a stereotype, and Nathan/Turbine does as well) to make them stand apart. The two secondary characters I really wanted to see developed (and this being the first book of a trilogy, with a rich history to be explored, there's plenty of time) were The Professor and The Sleuth. Their relationship is at first implied, and then outright commented on, derogatorily, by their peers. Gay-bashing was just as much a part of 1880s life as it is now, if not moreso, and while many of us would like to imagine our super-heroes would be more accepting than real people are the fact that Mayer includes some queer-baiting among the team's conversations feels more realistic to me, especially considering this book takes place during Oscar Wilde's lifetime. Still, I hope we'll get to see more of The Professor and The Sleuth's history in subsequent books.
If there's any downside to this book, it is that it explicitly IS the first book in a trilogy, and it makes no apologies or concessions. If you get to within 50 pages and you're wondering, "wow, how is Mayer going to wrap all of this up," don't be surprised that he doesn't. He wraps some of it up, but the book ends with a fat old cliffhanger that has me wishing book two was already on the stands.