06 August 2012


Okay, I admit it - I've gotten very into this particular subgenre in the past few years, and it's continuing to spawn new tales so I don't see myself getting out of the habit anytime soon.  For those unfamiliar with the term, steampunk is generally described as an amalgamation of old-fashioned (think Victorian) society with higher-tech elements - if you're imagining robots running around foggy London, you've got it about right, at least in the broader outlines.   (There seems to be a sub-subgenre known as "Weird West" where this stuff gets mixed up with cowboys and the American frontier, but that's not really my thing; I'll stick to the gears and gaslights.)  As with all such descriptions, it's vague enough to fit many things under its umbrella - and speaking of umbrellas, let me start with:

The Parasol Protectorate - Gail Carriger

So what if the main character is (also) half Italian, with a sizable schnozz, and arse to match?  I didn't write it, so it's not a Mary Sue, damnit.  These are fantastic - and do please impart both meanings to that word.  They make me laugh, snort, giggle, and emit all other manner of noises of amusement, despite the presence of vampires and werewolves (which normally turn me right off), but when the main werewolf is Scottish and the most prominent vampire a gay fashionista with a penchant for italics, well, somehow the whole mishmash works brilliantly (not to mention contains the most amazingly wacked-out names since Robertson Davies died - witness creations like Ivy Hisselpenny and the Colindrikal-Bumbcrunchers!). Toss in some homicidal mechanical ladybugs, zombie porcupines, a cross-dressing French inventress-cum-milliner, and a heap of mysterious brass octopodes, and you have the astonishing confection swirling around Alexia Tarabotti through this five-book series.

Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld

Not only steampunk but majorly alternate history too!  It's 1914 and the world is on the verge of war, but in this version of events the powers are aligned mainly along the Clanker vs. Darwinist divide - in other words, imagine not only advanced steam technology but also pre-Watson and Crick genetic tinkering and guided evolution.  Most countries have chosen one path or the other (the US being a notable exception), and over the course of this trilogy we see much of the world, from Turkey to Tunguska.  Our dual protagonists are Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl masquerading as a boy to join the Air Corps, and Aleksandar, the son you never knew Archduke Ferdinand had.  Some real historical figures put in appearances (like everybody's favourite batshit insane genius, Nikola Tesla), and there are some pretty crazy engineered creatures (I really, really want a perspicacious loris), but as with all good tales it's the story itself that sucks you in and holds you.

Pastworld - Ian Beck

This one is a bit different in that it's only pretending to be the Victorian Era - it's actually set in the future, but with London set up as a kind of theme park showcasing Victorian life, and that includes its harsh punishments (like, you know, death by hanging for the crime of theft).  The concept and the story are great, but the copy editing really sucks - things like that frustrate the crap out of me.  It's possible that it was cleaned up for the paperback release, but I have a hardcover.  Anyway, the Buckland Corporation controls Pastworld, and when one of the architects visits with his son, Caleb, things immediately go badly wrong.  A Ripper-style murderer known as the Fantom is wreaking havoc, a girl named Eve can't recall anything before she turned 15, and a Dodger-esque pickpocket takes Caleb under his wing...

The Hunchback Assignments - Arthur Slade

I'm terribly fond of this Canadian series (last one is due out this autumn), which starts out with nods towards The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and then goes straight down the steampunk path. A badly-deformed child is trained to be a highly-secret British agent - the ace up his sleeve is his peculiarly malleable features, which he can alter at will (though not keep it that way forever).  At the age of 14, he's turned loose and, teaming up with fellow teen agent Octavia Milkweed, they're off to bring down a plot against Britain's government, involving something quite high up the ladder indeed...  The usual bits of creepy clockwork play their role here, but Modo as a character carries the story on his malformed shoulders and it's quite impossible not to root for him.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this series ends!

Adventures of Newbury & Hobbes - George Mann

This series takes a darker, more serious line than any of the above, with the eponymous duo being secret agents for the artificially-sustained Queen Victoria (except she {Hobbes} doesn't know that he {Newbury} knows that she {Hobbes again} is, if you follow me). We start off with a zombie plague (which used to really get on my nerves, but I have to say, most steampunk integrates them quite well if they're used - this time, the disease comes from India), and the possibility of a supernaturally-glowing policeman/murderer, and we take it from there, with side trips down Opium Lane and Sister-in-Bedlam Street while we're at it.  Very well written, with great characters (I love Newbury's landlady) and seriously bizarre scenarios involving dirigibles, brain surgery (kinda), Egyptology, and of course, lots and lots of gears.

Steampunk Chronicles - Kady Cross

You know how I sometimes say that I am perfectly capable of distinguishing what's good from what I like?  This is certainly not the best-written of the bunch, but I like it anyway, mostly because of the main character but also because I'm getting seriously addicted to the fashions of the genre and this thing is full of 'em.  Also note that it was well worth waiting for the paperback on this one, as it contains a prequel novella that was previously only available as an ebook (no, I do not own an ereader and I have absolutely no plans to).  Finley Jayne has a slight problem - when she gets mad, she gets violent, and this brings with it a tremendous increase in speed and power while she's at it.  Jekyll and Hyde, you say?  Oh, just wait.  She (of course) discovers other teenagers with strangely augmented abilities (I love Emily-the-genius, by the way, she's awesome) and throws her lot in with them as they try to discover what the heck is going on, both within themselves and in the wider sphere of events.  The addition of an American cowboy allows the second in the series to transition neatly to New York (haven't read it yet, waiting to see if more goodies show up in the paperback again).

The Laws of Magic - Michael Pryor

Yet more proof that Australia is turning out some of the best fantastical fiction these days.  Another hybrid of magic and technology, the series focuses on young Aubrey Fitzwilliam: aspiring magician, diligent student, son of the (former, then reinstated) Prime Minister, and oh yeah, he's kind of falling apart at the seams due to a little bit of misguided death magic.  Whoops.  Set in an analogue of our own world (Albion = Great Britain, Holmland = Germany, Gallica = France, etc.) where magic is as common as science, this 6-book cycle is not only full of engaging characters (Aubrey's romantic failures are particularly amusing) and pseudo-WWI situations, but an extraordinarily complex system of magic, using multiple ancient languages and a rigorous criteria for reproducibility every bit as strict as what you would find in a scientific laboratory.  While each book has its own self-contained storyline, there's definitely an overarching plot that runs through the set, so be sure to read them in order!

Ministry of Peculiar Occurences - Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

New Zealand pepperpot meets nerdy British librarian (oh, meet-cute, hello there!), and sparks fly - erm, except in this case the sparks are quite literal, as they blow up a castle, and, erm, it's in Antarctica, and - hey, the book starts in media res too, I'm just trying to keep the review parallel here. ;-)  Okay, so Eliza D. Braun is a bit overfond of dynamite, and Wellington Books is a tech geek a hundred years early, so their interactions are generally hilarious.  When she's exiled to his archives after failing to kill him on that mission to Antarctica, things really take a turn for the weird, especially when she discovers case notes left by her previous partner (who was found wandering and gibbering on the streets about 8 months ago and is currently confined for his own safety).  Add corpses turning up which are lacking rather essential items (like, you know, bones) and you have a pretty crazy adventure.  For all that it's highly entertaining, it was still a slower read than I expected; I'll be tackling the sequel shortly, so hopefully the writers have edited a bit more on that one.

The Clockwork Empire - Steven Harper

Now this one has all the ingredients I like - music and gears and nobles and - yeah, okay, it also has zombies.  I guess I don't mind them anymore after all.  Oh, and there's a clockwork cat called Click, whom I adore.  Anyway, we have one Alice Michaels, daughter of Baron Michaels (that seems off to me, I don't believe surnames and titles are supposed to match, but I could be wrong on that one), who has seen her mother and brother die from the Clockwork Plague which also crippled her father (oddly, they're the lucky ones, as most sufferers end up as the aforementioned zombies).  A rare few sufferers develop into raving geniuses known as clockworkers, who create insanely complicated inventions that have enabled the rise of, well, clockwork (duh), meaning that automatons are commonplace among the upper classes - in fact, Alice has quite a lot of little ones, sent by her estranged Aunt Edwina over the past 5 years.  Then we have Gavin Ennock, a fiddle-playing Bostonian whose airship is hijacked, leaving him stranded in London when his company declines to ransom him.  Obviously, they meet up too, and here we go on more adventures!  Tremendously fun, even if the character of Alice is quite inconsistent for most of the book, and there are one or two musical missteps along the way (for the record, D-sharp augmented is certainly not a note, and you'd never name a chord that either, as it would require both other notes to be double-sharped.)

All right, that's all we have time for today, at least until one of these gearheads invents a time machine.  Oh - you say H. G. Wells pulled that off ages ago?  Where do you think this genre started, anyway? ;-)