Question: How do you know when Steampunk has hit the mainstream? Answer: When it migrates to the romance novel.
In Katie MacAlister’s Steamed: A Steampunk Romance, scientist Jack Fletcher and his sister Hallie are involved in a lab accident and wake up…aboard His Imperial Majesty’s airship Tesla, in an alternate reality in which the British expanded their empire to include Italy and Prussia, the Moghul empire retook Constantinople - and steam technologies continued to hold sway. Captain Octavia Pye, a red-haired beauty in command of her first airship, is taking the Tesla to Rome, and the last thing she needs are two stowaways aboard. Octavia takes Jack for an airship pirate, principally because Jack is wearing a t-shirt that says “Airship Pirates.” Jack protests in vain that this was the name of a Steampunk band whose concert Jack had attended the night before. (Note to author: oh, come on, a Steampunk band with initials “AP”? Puh-leeze.)
After some steamy looks at one another, and a fair number of double entendres and inappropriate remarks about the lady’s corset, Jack and Octavia become friends, in the "oh, just get a room!" sense. The Tesla is attacked by the Black Hand, an organization whose purpose is to overthrow the British Emperor, and led by Octavia's ex-beau Etienne Briel. Etienne and the Black Hand are repelled by a second attack, this time from a group of Moghuls (also intent on overthrowing the Emperor), led by Prince Akbar, also one of Octavia's former flames. Embarrassment ensues when Jack, his manly dander raised, assaults Akbar and repels the Moghuls.
As the ship lands in Rome, plots within plots reveal themselves, Jack and Octavia find some alone time, and Jack's sister Hallie is arrested by the Emperor's men and is slated to be returned to England to be executed as a wedding present to the Emperor. Naturally, Jack and Octavia must find a way to rescue Hallie while avoiding the Black Hand, the Moghuls, and arrest.
Because I will later say some not-so-nice things, let me start out by saying that the book was fun to read. The plot is preposterous, the romance equally so, but MacAlister was certainly not trying to write a book meant to be taken seriously. One of the best things about the book was the sendup of the Steampunk culture. Jack can't understand why no one wears goggles, as goggles are clearly a Steampunk must-have. He is equally at sea as to why Octavia wears her corset beneath her blouse, instead of on the outside, as good Steampunks do.
I enjoyed the adventure story reasonably well, though I thought it was under-developed. The setup had potential: the young, plucky female captain on her first command; the scientist thrust from his world into a strange yet oddly familiar one; the political intrigue; the sister in need of a daring rescue. Will the captain's crew respect her authority? Will the scientist find his way home? Will the plots against the Emperor succeed, and will our hero and heroine pull off the rescue in time? Unfortunately, the novel - about 350 pages - devotes perhaps 100 of those pages to this plot. The rest of the book is devoted to the romance between Jack and Octavia, which left too little space in which to develop the plot. Improbable plot developments were commonplace; for example, Jack somehow bests Prince Akbar, which leads to the Moghuls simply abandoning their mission to hijack the Tesla's cargo. Later in the book, the Tesla's crew appears with no explanation whatsoever as to how they could have done so.
At the same time, I didn't think the book worked well as a romance. I have a confession here: I haven't read a romance novel in several decades. I'm told they've changed. I have it on authority that it is no longer the case that the lead characters cannot consummate their relationship until the last page. No doubt other changes have occurred. Still, the constant panting after one another, and the barrage of sexually charged remarks,even in the heat of battle, and even in front of the crew, seemed perplexing. The central trope of the romance novel always seemed to be that the mismatched characters were thrust into one another's unwanted presence on multiple occasions, but that, over the course of the novel, each realized that the other was more than just a pretty face - and this change in perspective was accomplished through episodes in which person A saw person B demonstrate bravery/compassion/charity, or whatever characteristics seemed to be missing at the beginning of the story. Here, Octavia and Jack have an immediate physical attraction to one another, and later profess their love for one another (I don't think I'm giving anything away by making that remark), yet neither character changes. Jack is a possessive womanizer - I'll give MacAlister points for making the male lead a bona fide nerd yet simultaneously studly - while Octavia is...well, it's hard to say.
One reader of Steamed referred to the book as "bathroom p**n." That assessment may be a little harsh, but the book shares with that genre the objectification of women. Octavia is a hot babe who can fill out a corset, but not a fully-developed character. Similarly, Jack is a smooth-talking sex hound who is ready for action at a moment's notice, and little more. (His sister, Hallie, is little more than a plot device, as we see very little of her.)
To be fair, the book is clearly designed to be humorous, and there were a number of laugh-out-loud passages. Perhaps I'm just not familiar with the subgenre of the comic romance, where improbable events that occur merely to move along the plot are commonplace, and hot action is more important than permitting the reader to identify with the main characters. However, I can't help but wish there were less romance and more Steampunk.