Monday, September 12, 2011

Steampunk Reading

It's been quite some time since I nattered on about recent books I've read. Here are some brief thoughts about some Steampunk books (some more Steampunk than others, I'll admit) from the past year.

Susanna Clark, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

Not a Steampunk novel, but instead a novel of magic and manners of the early 19th century, I had purchased the book several years before I read it, daunted by its thousand-page length. Despite the length, the Victorian-style language, and the dense footnotes (many of which relate some episode in the history of English magic), the book was surprisingly easy to read and, dare I say, fun.

Mr. Norrell, a fussy little scholar, has devoted his life to learning "practical" magic. He finds a protege in the talented dilettante Jonathan Strange, who is willing to draw on darker powers than his mentor dares. After working together to, among other things, help the English defeat Napoleon's forces, the two ultimately part ways and Norrell determines to demonstrate that his approach to magic is the better one. When Strange's wife dies, he enters into a bargain to bring her back - in a manner - but finds that he has started down a path that may restore the old magic - and power that dwarfs his own.

The lighthearted tone of the earlier part of the book gives way to a more somber tone as the narrative grows darker, but the entire novel is eminently readable.

Jonathan Green, Unnatural History: Pax Britannia Series (2007)

This is the first book in an ongoing series (mostly written by Green) in which the British empire still rules the world in the late 20th century - including the 160-year-old Queen Victoria, kept alive though steam-powered medical technology.

Ulysses Quicksilver, a dandy by day, action hero by night, works for the government as an unusual troubleshooter. This time, he uncovers a plot to bring down the Crown and...adventures ensue.

The plot is somewhat irrelevant to the book. It serves to move the action forward, as in old adventure serials. Quicksilver is an amusing character, but other characters aren't all that well-developed. The mixture of modern technology and 19th-century technology is a little off-putting, though I give Green credit for moving a Steampunk novel out of the usual Victorian era (though, I suppose it's technically still the Victorian era in his world!). Ultimately, while I found it to be a fun read, I wasn't enthused enough to buy the sequels.

Scott Westerfield, Leviathan (2009)

The first in a trilogy of young adult Steampunk (perhaps more correctly Dieselpunk) novels (Behemoth is out and Goliath is scheduled to be out in September), Leviathan tells two intersecting stories set against an alternate version of World War I. In the first, Deryn Sharp, a young girl, disguises herself as a boy in order to enlist in the air force to support her family. She distinguishes herself in training and finds herself aboard the Leviathan, the British Empire's largest airship - and also a living creature, as the British have become experts in genetic engineering. In the second, young Prince Aleksandar, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's son and heir to the Austrian throne, must make his escape after his parents are assassinated. The Axis powers are expert in mechanical devices, so the conflict becomes one of genetics versus mechanics.

Ultimately, of course, the two stories intersect, as the Leviathan is damaged in battle and its crew encounters the refugee prince and his advisors.

This is another book I couldn't quite get into. In part I had a hard time getting past the conceit that a girl could go undetected in the close quarters of the military, much less in the closer quarters of an airship. Still, an an adventure story for young adults, the book is a quick read filled with action and, of course, the potential for romance down the road.

Cherie Priest, Dreadnought (2010)

A sequel of sorts to Boneshaker, Dreadnought is the story of Mercy Lynch, a nurse and war widow in the Civil War, which has continued into the 1880s as each side tries to wear down the other.

Mercy, working in a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, learns that her estranged father is seriously ill back in Seattle, Washington. She takes her few belongings and starts to make her way back home.

The entirety of the novel describes Mercy's journey, from Richmond to Tennessee by airship, then on a series of trains to the west coast. There are various adventures along the way, including an airship crash, a mysterious Texan who joins the caravan west, a locked train compartment guarded by Union soldiers, missing Mexican soldiers, rebel attacks on the train, and the yellow gas/drug first encountered in Boneshaker that turns users into zombies.

It's a long novel with long stretches where the action is thin. There's no big payoff here, just an account of a young woman's dangerous trip west. Nonetheless, Priest keeps the story going and the book was enjoyable to read.

Gail Carriger, Blameless (2010), Heartless (2011)

The latest entries in the Parasol Protectorate series of Victorian romance/adventure pastiches with a Steampunk flavor. In Blameless, our heroine, Lady Maccon, married to a werewolf, finds herself in the family way. As her husband is technically dead and, therefore, unable to have children, he is more than a little perturbed. Alexia travels to Italy for answers and to clear her good name.

In Heartless, Alexia, now well along in her pregnancy (carrying what she refers to as the "infant inconvenience"), must first find out why London's vampires have begun trying to kill her, then uncover why ghosts are whispering about a plot to kill Queen Victoria. As if that weren't enough, Alexia's inventrix friend, Madame Lefoux, is creating something in secret, an Alexia's sister has become a suffragette. To top it off, Biffy, Lord Akeldama's former drone who was turned into a werewolf, is having trouble adjusting to his new condition.

As with all the books in the series, the plotting is crisp, the characters well-drawn, and the action non-stop. Even a pregnancy can't slow down Alexia. Readers who found too much werewolf-on-preternatural grabbing in earlier books will be relieved that Alexia and her husband can (mostly) keep their hands off one another and get on with the plot. The dandy vampire Lord Akeldama features prominently in Heartless, which is quite a good thing.

O.M. Grey, Avalon Revisited (2010)

Less Steampunk than gaslight fantasy, Avalon Revisited involves Arthur, King Henry VIII's older brother (and one-time fiance of Catherine of Aragon), thought to have died in the 16th century but actually turned into a vampire. Now, in the Victorian era, Arthur meets Avalon, a young lady who reminds him of Catherine.

Avalon and Arthur are both interested in getting to the bottom of a series of gruesome series of murders that Arthur suspects is the work of a vampire. Avalon, initially cool to Arthur's attentions, warms to him - until she discovers his secret. Still duty calls, and Avalon, along with her more enthusiastic vampire-hunting partner Victor, use Arthur's talents to uncover the mystery.

Some niggling complaints: Arthur's language tends to be surprisingly modern - as in 21st century modern - despite his origins as a 16th century Tudor. The romance aspect is fairly cookie-cutter. And it's never really clear why Arthur switches from his three centuries of womanizing to a puppy in love over Avalon. If one can ignore those issues, the book was a fun romp - and, in the Kindle edition, the price was definitely right.

Thomas S. Roche, ed., Like a Wisp of Steam (2010)

Five stories of *cough* Steampunk erotica. Here's the sad thing: it wasn't so long ago that I read the book (in Kindle format), but I couldn't tell you anything of substance about any of the stories.

The trouble - or a trouble, at any rate - with short story collections is that the reader invests some mental energy into understanding and believing the world that the author builds...only to have the story end and the reader has to repeat the process. Without an immediate hook into the characters or the situations in which the characters find themselves, the effort feels far too much like work. These stories felt too much like work. All of the setup seemed designed to lead to the erotic scenes.

Perhaps it's not the book, it's me. I often find sex scenes to be so contrived, the language so ridiculous, that I'm in the "less is more" school when it comes to reading the things. Building a story around a sex scene strikes me as odd. In any event, I didn't care for the book.

Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel (2011)

I'm currently reading this novel, a Steampunk take of The Avengers, with agent Eliza Braun, sporting a bulletproof corset and a seriously bad attitude, in the Emma Peel role and stuffy agent Wellington Books, archivist in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, in the John Steed role. (Steed seemed to have more fun, though.)

The novel opens as Braun makes a daring rescue of Books, who has been held captive by the opposition and is on the verge of being tortured. Despite her successful mission, Braun is considered too much of a loose cannon and is assigned to the archives with Books, with the hope that he can instill some discipline in her. Then bodies start appearing, and the agents discover that they have something to do with Braun's former partner, now locked in an asylum.

The main characters are well-done and distinctive, and the action is nicely paced. The plot seems preposterous, but, then again, couldn't one say that about most of the episodes of The Avengers? I'm about halfway through the book and looking forward to seeing how the story ends.

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