Alien Steampunk: B. J. Muirhead reviews ‘The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon)’ by R.J. Ashby

The Airmen (Part 1: The Pirates of Aireon) by R.J. Ashby. Dragonfall Press 2012.

AirmenScience-fiction is a very difficult area in which to publish. A part of the reason is the unwillingness of publishers to take on unknown authors in a world where it seems that fame alone sells. I would not have believed the extent to which this is the case if one sci-fi writer had not told me over coffee that his publisher was begging him to write fantasy in place of the planned volumes he already had been signed to write. The point of mentioning this is that, in spite of this, there is a lot of good work written and published that may not receive the exposure it deserves.

The Pirates of Aireon is one such work. It is a science-fiction adventure set on a planet which seems entirely unsuited to human life, a planet almost entirely covered by ocean, above which float giant cities which are divided into groupings of nations, all of which surround Rimland, the one known area of land, in the middle of which is a lake, complete with sailing ships and another island on which is the entrance to Underworld, where no one but priests of the Sacred Flame are welcome.

Everything technological which the people need for life, the metal for the cities and airships, fruit, vegetables and more, come from Rimland and Underworld; everything but fish and ocean driftweed, the latter being an unpalatable but nutritious seaweed infested with giant leeches. The ocean also is home to a variety of dangerous creatures, including a variety of sharks and krakens, which hide in deep water and attack creatures on the water surface. Airships are the only viable means of transport between the cities and Rimland, and are made of lightweight, gravity resisting metal skeletons covered with canvas.

Jardan, the twenty-one year old central male character, lives on the Rochelle, a three hulled, three winged airship with his father Borges. As airmen they find and strip wrecked airships of everything that is useful, in particular the valuable engine parts and the crystals which power them. Airmen avoid the cities which are overcrowded, polluted and often dangerous, preferring to live a nomadic life in their airships, only stopping at the cities when they need supplies and have salvage to sell.

Most of this is learnt in the first few chapters, which present an almost idyllic lifestyle for Jardan and Borges, apart from the need to keep watch for pirates, and the predators in the ocean.

The set up for the story is accomplished and peaks our interest. In fact, the entire book holds a reader’s interest easily, partly because the action is ongoing and compelling enough to sustain interest, and partly because new information is injected into the action in a way that is natural and pushes the story forward until we are deeply involved in a culture which is almost unbelievably vicious and anarchic within a rigid social structure. People kill each other regularly, almost without thought. The worst among them are the pirates, living in Aireon, a city which many have heard of, but whose location is known to few. Jardan arrives in Aireon after killing all but one of the pirates who attacked the Rochelle and killed his father. The only escape, after he and the female pirate Rowella had been rescued by a salvage vessel, whose crew Jardan then killed when they planned to rape Rowella, was the pirate city of Aireon, where Jardan is sold as a slave.

Both Jardan and Rowella are accomplished pilots and fighters, and when they escape Aireon they are accompanied by an acolyte from Rimland, who convinces them to take their stolen airship to Rimland where the truth of their presence on the planet is discovered by Jardan and Rowella.

The difficulty for me in writing about it is that there is so much action in this book, so many plot diversions and twists, that it is very difficult to provide a feel for the work that doesn’t seem as though it is outrageously absurd. There is a sadistic assassin, for example, who chases Jardan after the latter, without meaning to, caused the death of the son of a crime gang leader, and there is the Chairwoman, the insane elderly leader of the pirates and grandmother to Rowella, who saves Jardan from the Chairwoman and who becomes, after many misunderstandings, Jardan’s lover. But it is not the most complex novel of this type, and this gives it a directness which other adventure stories often lack. Suffice it to say, therefore, that the story is well constructed and believable within the constraints of the planet and steampunk technology, bearing in mind that the story expands and evolves so that many of our questions—how did such a strange society come about? being just one—are answered.

As the first in a planned series of books this sustained, and restrained, release of relevant information works well, and we certainly don’t have anywhere near all of the answers by the end, but nor does the end leave us hanging uncomfortably waiting for the next volume. By the time we reach the last page, the story being told has been finished satisfactorily, which in this instance means that although everything in this volume has been resolved, new elements have been introduced as the foundation for the next book in the series.

The second book in The Airmen series (The Kraken Hunters) has been written, but the whole series is a victim of the closure of Dragonfall Press.

Ashby, however, is a determined writer, and has commenced a new series, (The Kingbreaker Chronicles) published by Ticonderoga Publications.

I personally hope, however, that The Airmen series will be revived. Part One is a good read for kids, and anyone else who likes adventure with a dash of planetary science fiction.

– Bruce Muirhead


BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at and

Unfortunately with the closure of Dragonfall Press it maybe difficult to locate a copy of The Airmen. A search of the internet, however, may turn up some copies. Further details maybe available from R.J. Ashby’s website

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