Steampunk – the Next Big Thing?

Above artwork is “Steampunk” by John Coulthart

Is Steampunk the new trend in the fantasy genre? I’m beginning to see it everywhere I look. But what is it? The image above has tongue-in-cheek a formula Jeff VanderMeer came up with: Mad Scientist Inventor [invention (steam x airship or metal man / baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot = Steampunk.

Some books to look out for:

  • I just read and reviewed (LJ / vox / wordpress) Dru Pagliassotti’s Clockwork Heart. She’s busy working on the second book tentatively titled Obstruction Currents. She has also been working on a third novel with the working title King’s Monster, but I don’t know if that is also steampunk.
  • Karin Lowachee is working on The Gaslight Dogs (she’s the author of an amazing science fiction trilogy Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird). I haven’t seen much about this one so it may be coming out later from orbit books:
    “Very different from her previous military science fiction novels, this is a Victorian era steampunk novel in the style of Philip Pullman taking us from the Arctic North to steeped rooftops of civilization and the savages to the east. (Fall/Winter 2009)”
  • Liz Maverick is working on Crimson and Steam, which should be out January 2010 and which is set in her Crimson city universe.
The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy ParkerSteamed by Katie MacAlisterSoulless by Gail Carriger

  • Katie MacAlister is working on a Steampunk series that will have it’s first book out in 2010. Her website has this announcement: “I’ve just received the cover to Steamed, the first in a new series of Steampunk romances, which will be out February 2010. The cover isn’t quite finished (you can view a large version of it here), but you can get a sneak peek at it and the back cover copy to see what all the fuss is about. Fluff up your bustle, polish your pocket watch, adjust your goggles, and crank up the Abney Park! It’s steam time, ladies and gentlemen! ”
  • The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber is coming out from Dorchester on 09/09/09 and has a lovely cover. The author calls it a “ghostly, gothic Victorian fantasy”. Looks promising. Link to the book trailer. The cover blurb:
    “What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Considering how few of Queen Victoria’s Londoners knew of it, the great Romanesque fortress was dreadfully imposing, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met the powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadow, the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She knew simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow-white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gifts. But this arched stone doorway offered a portal to a new life, an education far from the convent—and an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death….”
  • Gail Carriger has a book out September from Orbit: Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate):Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire — and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.”
  • Meljean Brook has twittered about a steampunk book with pirates. Research reveals she’s got a new series in the works called the Iron Seas

The books coming out should be interesting. I see both authors with a background in romance and science fiction/fantasy coming into the same genre. I’m really looking forward to the results.

The Galaxy Express: Steampunk Romance Watch

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti

Clockwork Heart
Dru Pagliassotti

I’d seen this book mentioned a couple of times online but for some reason I had labelled it in my mind as not so intriguing until I read a review at the Book Smugglers blog (they gave it a 9 – “damn near perfection”). I put it on my books to read list at that point but I wasn’t salivating over it like some other books.

A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I decided to go for a walk and ended up at Barnes and Noble. I saw a copy of Clockwork Heart and picked it up. I started reading a few pages. At first some of the terminology confused me.  What’s a wireferry? Lictors? Decator? Icarus? I would read for a bit then go back a page or two to reread something to understand a bit better. But the story itself started out in the middle of some action, so I was already interested.

The premise: This story starts when a metal car suspended by wires starts to tumble towards the ground as our heroine was stopping nearby for lunch. Taya is a citizen of Ondinium, a city divided into castes, “Primus for the exalteds; Secundus for the cardinals; and Tertius, for the plebians”. Taya herself is an icarus, someone who trained to fly with wings made out of the metal ondium (which is lighter than air), and who is allowed to freely pass between the city’s sections. She and her kind are messagers as well as trained for search and rescue, so of course Taya jumps into action to help the two passengers in the falling metal car.  This chance encounter pushes Taya into the world of the exalteds and soon she is caught up in betrayals and political plots happening within the city.  In particular, Taya is sucked into the world of two brothers – Cristof and Alister Forlore. Alister is the gracious, charming one who works as a decator (I translated this to something like – minister/politician), and Cristof is the gruff, abrupt one who works as a clockmaker.

By page 20 I was hooked. 50 pages in and I had the terminology down. I could not stop reading! And how did I miss Angie’s pimping it too? She only put it on her best of 2008 list! I really chastized myself for not having this book on my radar earlier.

What I really loved was the world building. I have a very basic idea of steampunk so I came into this book with no expectations and was just blown away at the images of Ondinium while I was reading this book – from a city with winding, intricate streets, to the costumes of members of the different castes, and all the little nooks and crannies in between like the interesting things in Alister’s crowded, paper filled office and in Cristof’s watch shop. I also enjoyed the idea of card-punch computing (old-school!) being a large part of the plot and a system built upon this that is used to help run Ondinium. It was fantastic! The cherry on the top of all this was the slow moving romance that did not take over the book and worked alongside the mystery of what is going on in Ondinium.

The only negatives I can think of for this story were very minor. One was that at times I ran into a few typos like repeated phrases next to each other and missing words. I’m not really the most observant person about this type of thing so when I do catch it I figure others will. The other comment I had was on the ending well there was a really satisfying HEA for the romance, but the mystery part somehow didn’t tie up to my complete satisfaction. The reveal was a bit of a surprise (when I mull this over I think that perhaps I was distracted by red herrings thrown in by the author), and yet WHY also didn’t fully make sense to me. Maybe I expected to understand the reasons for the villains’ actions more fully than was presented.

Overall: Already one of my favorite reads of this year, I think it’s a shoo in for my best of 2009 list. This combines fantasy, steampunk, romance, action, and intrigue into something new and fresh.  If you are the least bit interested go find this book. I was so addicted I just read this straight for hours and when I came up for air I was disoriented about how much time had passed.

I’d compare the romance aspect to Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars (where the hero isn’t exactly who you’d think he’d be at first, and there’s caste/rank issues, but he turns out to be more compatible and honorable than other characters seem to allow), and the world building to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Snow Crash (this blew me away like those books did).

This is the debut novel by this author, however she has published some short stories. Dru Pagliassotti is currently working on a sequel to Clockwork Heart tentatively titled Obstruction Currents.  According to her blog she’s also working on another (unrelated) novel called King’s Monster. Which means no backlog for me to glom onto, and I have to wait for the next book. Meanwhile, new author to stalk and put on the auto-buy list. I’m excited to read whatever comes out next!

P.S Yes it really does kind of look like Leelee Sobieski on the cover.

Reviews elsewhere: