Rise of the Alchemist by Craig Gallant. From the Winged Hussar website, it is "A steampunk alternative history set in the US, 100 years after the failed revolution. The first novel in a shared author universe where crystals open a door to magic."
So I go into this without even that much information (I didn't look the book up until after I had finished it).
This is a Fantasy / Alternate History novel. Set in 1880 after Benedict Arnold helped the British to defeat the uprising in the American colonies a hundred years before. However he then betrayed England as well, forming his own country of Albion where the US east of the Mississipi is in our world (well except for Florida). Then to make things worse, the volcano under what we know of as Yellowstone National Park exploded, shattering the continent between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean and creating a devastated wasteland as the deadly ash and smoke destroyed everything to the north and east, known as the Wastes. The indigenous people have their own nation, the Empire of the Summer Moon, the French control Liberte' in the area that would have been Louisiana, and parts of Texas then the south west Washington where the survivors of the failed revolution eventually settled. The Haitian empire rules the Caribbean sea.
This is the story of Nicholas Hawke, an English scholar and researcher, who has discovered Merlin's Stone, and seeks to prove that the legends of magic are based on truth. Journeying to the kingdoms of the new world in search of answers from those who may still believe and practice magic.
Unfortunately, this is told entirely in a strong first person narrative entirely from Nicholas' point of view. While a very acceptable narrative device, it does have the weakness that is relies on conversations with other characters in order to give the main character (and the reader) any insight into anything beyond what can be immediately felt, seen and heard. If your story is solely about what is happening within the main character, and they have an interesting narrative, then it works. But this doesn't work well in this instance, where there are way too many questions that are simply not answered. For the first third of the book Nicholas is surrounded by people who don't speak English, so he simply hides away.
Nicholas is not a sympathetic, or even interesting character. And his ignorance, and thus the readers ignorance, is almost unbearable. I have read other books where I wanted to yell at the protagonist before, but those were where even if you didn't like the main character, you liked those around him. But here we know nothing about those around him because he won't interact with them.
The book is fairly fast paced, but it did not feel that way. Perhaps is was because, up until the final third, I was forcing myself to continue on (much like Nicholas' journey itself).
When a character that Nicholas actually talks to for more than a few pages is FINALLY introduced, it is a breath of fresh air - though again he seems incapable of having enough of a conversation to actually give us any information.
The final third of the books is better, and it builds to a climax with what is meant to be a surprising twist - but when it came I found I didn't understand it significance and didn't care. I was actually a bit surprised that I wanted to know a bit more, as it just flat ended.
Afterward, when I saw this was a "shared author universe" (reminiscent of the Thieves' World series back in the late 70's) it seems that it might explain some bits of what was missing. Perhaps some of the characters are actually owned by other authors (such as Monique Dubois, Randall Cole and Abigail Parker), and finding out more about them would be once their stories were told.
The setting is interesting, with a mix of magic and steampunk elements (though there no magic for most of the book, and the Nicholas actively refuses to ride the airships, so we don't get much of that either). It is probably a good thing that I do have questions about who some of these characters are (such as the Haitian - who in this book doesn't actually explain anything, just giving the hero yet another macguffin without any reason or explanation why it should end up being important) (or what does it mean that Monique is an Inquisitor?) to peak my interest for another entry in this series.
One additional minor bit of confusion is the title. The cover says "Rise of the Alchemist", while the heading of the pages all say "The Guns of the Alchemist", and I've seen some different combinations of these looking the book up online - like the name was changed just before publication.
It almost feels like this is set in a specific RPG setting which would help to answer a lot of the questions I have, but which I've never gotten the source book for.
Because it is all fun and games . . .