Esme’s Indie Highlights/SPFBO: The Censor’s Hand by A.M. Steiner

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This book was part of Ventureadlaxre’s grouping, and has since been eliminated, but with decent praise.

I’m going to be using this post as a test for what I think I’ll be doing next year with SPFBO 2018, which is grading each part and coming up with a final score.


There are three POV’s in this book, and they’ve all got their own plot lines, and a couple of them do intertwine later on.

Daniel is the first POV we get, he’s a Censor in training about to take his final tests after already having passed a few. After taking his tests he’s assigned on a top-secret mission to investigate the murder that happened in the prologue. One of the Censor’s was murdered by unknown assailants, and it’s up to Daniel to figure out who did it and why. To start his investigation he has to go undercover to a school called the Verge, which trains people in Cunning Arts (this worlds magic). The Censors and the Cunning have a millennium of bad blood between them, the Censors and the Godsworn used to hunt down the Cunning and burn them at the stake.

Jon is Daniels brother, and he owns a mill in a poor part of the city known as  Turbulence, it’s an area of poverty and high crime. Both he and his brother grew up with a drunk and abusive father who made poor decisions and ran their family into debt, eventually hanging himself. Their sister was dragged off by a mob and was killed. He’s currently trying to keep the mill together, but there are factories nearby that are magically stealing all the wind, and his mill’s blades rarely turn and he can’t produce any grain. He has to resort to taking out a loan from a man known as the Peacock, who isn’t someone you want to owe money to. With it he gets a magical horse that never tires, and doesn’t need food or water. He transforms his windmill into a horsemill and starts producing a ton of grain. However, there aren’t enough customers to get his debts paid… so he has to resort to selling his grain to the rebellion. There’s a rebellion forming against the Wise Council, they call themselves the Freeborn, and Jon finds himself involuntarily intertwined with traitors.

Miranda is the first woman ever to be accepted into the Cunning and start studying at the Verge. She’s being bombarded by people who don’t want her there because they don’t feel it’s a womans place to be learning the Cunning Arts. She was an orphan who grew up in the Royal Orphanage, one of the 100 daughters of the Duchess of the North. Even though she’s an orphan, with the Duchess as her ‘mother’ she’s treated like nobility. She’s trying to prove herself and learn as much as she can while she can, because there are a lot of forces working against her, people are playing cruel pranks, trying to buy her out of the Verge, and other things to deter her from learning more.

Final Score: 8.5/10 



I consider this a character-driven book despite all the plot going on, there was a lot of character development and they were all very different from one another. I could easily pick out who’s chapter I was on if I were to skim to a random part of the book.

  • Daniel – Since he was born and raised in Turbulence, he wanted to choose the Turbulence as his first rotation as a Censor – they work sort of like guards or police. He has a deep need to help his brother and his family and thinks being a Censor could change things around for him and his family. He’s a disciplined person due to all of his training to be a Censor, they have a rigid and intense training schedule that leads to many people dropping out of the program. He’s generally a decent person, he’s fairly chivalrous and when he meets Miranda while undercover at the Verge he doesn’t show her any disrespect for being there and tries to defend her even if she doesn’t necessarily want him to.
  • Miranda – She’s headstrong, willful, and extremely intelligent. When she first arrives at the test which decides if you’ll be accepted into the Verge, she pushes right by a guard telling her there’s been a mistake and she can’t go in. She blows away the Master who’s testing her, and gets her acceptance – but not without a warning she won’t be wanted by everyone. There are some people at the Verge with more forward-thinking ideas, but others that are outwardly hostile. She deals with it fairly well, there were illusion pranks cast in her room to show corpses hanging from the ceiling calling her a bitch among other things, and she deals with it fairly calmly and refuses to let others get a rise from her.
  • Jon – He’s kind of a broken and stressed out person, he doesn’t know how to keep it all together and keep his family fed. He’s digging a hole deeper and deeper and keeps getting into more trouble. He’s got a magical item without a license that could bring huge fines down on his family, he’s been entangled in the rebellion, and he’s in debt to someone who’s a cutthroat swindler. His chapters are a bit more depressing. He loves his wife, but they do have their issues from time to time, and there’s a lady in the rebellion who’s making passes at him, but he’s fairly unamused by it and feels it’s insulting to his wife, Anna.

Final Score: 8.5/10 

World Building:

  • The Cunning was outlawed for more than 1000 years, with the Godsworn and the Censors burning them at the stake for practicing magic
  • The rebels who are working against the Wise Council are known as the Freeborn
  • There are a lot of steampunk like elements in this book: iron and copper lamp posts with glow stones, mechanical creatures like owls and spiders, mechanical clocks, and automatons that can play music
  • Science and scientific thought are in the beginning stages, Miranda discusses the logic of a heliocentric universe
  • A “confession” is the most important job of  a Censor, it allows them to see into the past
  • It’s been 30 years since the Cleansing, and the Godsworn and the Censors don’t speak to each other anymore, despite their long history of working together. The Godsworn became too obsessed with wealth and luxury, and spent more money than they earned.
  • A hekamaphone allows for long distance conversation, but voices only, no images
  • Most of the great advances in human history came from the East in the desert lands – literature, philosophy, Cunning, Gods, and Coffee 🙂 But, the Verge is changing that
  • The Cunning is a mysterious like magic, and in order to become powerful, you have to dedicate yourself to becoming ‘unnatural’. Each person chooses a different way to become ‘unnatural’ looking, and the more dedicated and committed you are to your personal route, the more powerful you become. There are people with metal in their faces warping their expressions, there are people with bizarre costumes and hairstyles. One Master hasn’t moved in 20 years, he has sores and welts and wounds, but he’s extremely powerful. It’s a little weird but it comes together the more you read about it.
  • Magic has a cost, you can go insane trying to follow your path to being unnatural

Final Score: 9/10 



The beginning started out fast, a few hand to hand battles, mysterious magic, and a murder – but after that, you get introduced to the characters and it slows down to world build and develops the characters. Around 30% the plot picks up as everything is put into place, and I sped through the rest of it.

There weren’t too many errors that I caught, less than a handful that I marked down.

The tone wasn’t overly bleak despite the hardships some of them are having, it was more exciting than anything learning the way the magic worked and the relationships between the different factions of the world.

Pacing Final Score: 7.5/10

Writing Final Score: 8.5/10 



I’ve never read a story with a magic system that worked like this, so that was exciting to read about.

A woman being the only person in a male-dominated profession has been done, so I’ve seen it a lot before, however, the character and the circumstances were interesting enough that it held my attention.

I liked the steampunk elements in it, it made the world feel different and more unique – although I’ll confess I haven’t read a ton of steampunk to begin with. However, since it’s new-ish to me it kept things pretty fresh. There have been less handful of books that have steampunk aspects to them from the SPFBO that I’ve read so far.

Final Score: 8/10


  • For people who like multi POV
  • For people who like steampunk
  • For people who like a LOT of magic
  • For people who like spy POV’s
  • For people who like female POV’s
  • For people who like a gritty world without being overly dark
  • For people who like character-driven stories
  • Not for those who don’t like cursing. 29 fucks given.

Final Thoughts:

Final Score: 50/60 or 8.33/10 or 4 stars on goodreads

I really liked this book, the prologue was short but it got me excited about the world. Sometimes when a prologue is too long it feels daunting to start all over again with new characters, but with shorter more compact prologues that then tie back into the story work well for me.

The characters were strong in this book which I love, I like a lot of action and magic in my books, but it’s a much better experience if I also connect and like the characters.

This one will likely make my top 30 list.


  1. Dear Esme,
    I hope you are well. Back in 2017 you kindly reviewed The Censor’s Hand, following its appearance in the SPFBO semi-finals. In the next few days I will be in a position to send out advance review ebook copies of the epic sequel – The Pillow Knife . Paperbacks will follow shortly thereafter. If you would be interested in receiving one (or the other), please let me know, and where to send it, and I will gladly do so.
    Best regards.

    1. hey there, i actually have a review request form that autofills a spreadsheet for me so i can keep track of requests. its a pinned tweet on my twitter account. you can find my twitter on my blog if you scroll to the bottom. thanks man!

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