Novella Review: "The Ugly Tin Orrery" by Rachael Acks

On July 20th, I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program, one of the few MFA programs with a Popular Fiction focus. Being out of school is new for me; graduation has thus far been accompanied by a strange bittersweetness interspersed with a wash of relief with a subsequent wave of utter hopelessness. This, I hear, is perfectly normal.

I could use a breather, and this week’s novella certainly provided me with one. Rachael Acks’ “The Ugly Tin Orrery,” published by Musa Publishing and part of an ongoing series, is a steampunk adventure story which, much like being out of school, is totally new for me. I have yet to jump on the steampunk train, though I have tried on several occasions only to end up falling off. Steampunk, I have told several friends of mine, is just not for me. Well, I was wrong, because I couldn’t put down “The Ugly Tin Orrery.”

A mystery is at the heart of this novella. Captain Ramos, a hardass pirate with a tendency to get herself both in and out of trouble, discovers the ugly tin orrery of the title during a freight train robbery. She pockets it without much thought, until she and her crew realize that its previous owner has been murdered, and his murder appears to have something to do with the rivalry between the Grand Duchy of Salt Lake City and the Grand Duchy of Denver. Captain Ramos and her crew are compelled to solve the mystery, and thus the plot unfolds, taking them through skirmishes and heartbreaks and meetings with old friends.

The world of “The Ugly Tin Orrery” is rich and feels layered; it is not fully contained in this one novella. It is clear that there are many more stories to be told, what with the mystery of the Infected, who appear to be a spin on the zombie. The idea of the Infected are skated across but never delved deep into during the course of this one particular story, though their presence has clearly affected the world a great deal. But although this novella is part of a series, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything because I have not read the other pieces – though reading those other novella would certainly make the story even richer – and in fact I was left feeling curious about the other novellas featuring Captain Ramos and her crew.

The characters in “The Ugly Tin Orrery” are rich and textured. Captain Ramos is an intriguing leader with potential, and her faithful companion, Simms, put me in mind of Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The perspectives switched among Ramos, Simms, and other secondary characters, which is interesting, as it allows different facets of the story to be told simultaneously. Such characterization is a good sign for a series such as this one.

If you’re in need a page-turning adventure/mystery, I would highly suggest “The Ugly Tin Orrery” by Rachael Acks. This novella and Acks’ others in the series are available for purchase through Musa Publishing.

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