Miss Sarah Stanton doesn't want to be a society belle. She wants to be a member of the Society of Paragons — a hero and an adventurer. But the organization isn't quite as squeaky clean as she believes.
The Falling Machine jumps right into the action. Sarah Stanton is ascending the Brooklyn Bridge with her would-be beau Nathaniel and the elderly inventor Mr. Darby. But they're not a normal pack of sightseers. Sarah's father is The Industrialist, a railroad magnate and costumed crime-fighter. Nat serves the city as The Turbine. And Mr. Darby is the leader of the Society of Paragons and the creator of fortified steam. Accompanying them is Tom the Automaton, Darby's greatest creation.
Their trip is a disaster. Their kindly Irish guide turns out to be The Bomb Lance, a costumed henchman for a supervillain. He murders Darby and ominously informs them, "Lord Eschaton is coming." And so Sarah, despite her father's best efforts, is drawn deeply into the Society of Paragons' doings and must unravel a conspiracy rotting the core of the organization.
The concept is clever: The Steampunk Super Friends! And Mayer is headed in the right direction with the corruption plot. The Society of Paragons aren't the shiny white knights they'd have you believe. The Industrialist, The Iron Clad, the Submersible, The Turbine, and Darby have devoted their lives to defending the great city of New York. Unfortunately, they're also all-too-human, with the usual failings. They're overly proud and self-impressed and, like most of the Gilded Age elite, quite thoroughly isolated from the suffering all around them.
Mayer has also matched his writing style to the time period, which is a nice touch. The novel is written with the sort of breathless, excited narration you'd expect from a Victorian adventure novel. For example:
"Damn," he said in a most perfect and proper English accent, and smashed the tip of his cane down onto the glass sphere at his feet. It exploded violently, ripping the cane out of his hand, and sending up a cloud of white smoke that enveloped him completely.
Unfortunately, The Falling Machine doesn't put an original enough spin on either steampunk or superheroes. We're thrown headfirst into the action, with Darby's death upending the decades-long stability of the Paragons. Sarah, The Industrialist's daughter, is our heroine. Fair enough. But there's just not enough world-building on who these costumed crime-fighters are or where they came from or what New York thinks of them. The reader just never has a chance to get oriented.
But the real problem is the characters and their motivations aren't developed well enough. Sarah's father, the Industrialist, showed some promise. The desire to do right, without the humility to stop and question whether his actions are right — that's the stuff compelling heroes are made of. Instead, Mayer bypasses Andrew to focus on his wayward daughter. She's supposed to be a strong-willed free spirit. Of course, anyone assigned to read The House of Mirth in college knows that 1890s New York was a claustrophobic environment for a spirited young woman of means. And Sarah's push-back plays out like so: Her father lectures her to mind her own business; she pouts for a moment, then returns to snooping. The impression is one of petulance rather than force of character.
This isn't 100 percent Mayer's fault, though. Sarah suffers in comparison with two recent scifi heroines in particular: Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker and Paolina of Jay Lake's Escapement and Pinion. Both have a much longer row to hoe than debutant Sarah Stanton, and both are more creative and original in their means of working with the limitations the world has placed upon them. But it would be tough for any heroine to measure up to those two. And even if she falls short, her adventure is still a damn fun read.