Steam Shorts — Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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I recently took a brief reading break from one of my favorite genres, steampunk. But given the recent release of a number of steampunk-related books, I just couldn’t stay away. I’ll be writing up reviews on a few of them this week, and I’d like to start with one that’s geared to the YA (Young Adult) crowd.

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is a collection of short stories edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. The hardcover book looks great, and the cover with its minimal color scheme reminded me of books I used to check out from the library when I was a kid with their hand-drawn cartoonish elements. Inside are fourteen tales from fourteen authors, some I know and some who are new to me. The tales range from the traditional (and easily recognizable) steampunk genre with the steam-powered gadgetry, automatons, and other standard features we’ve come to expect from the genre all the way to modern day tales that manage to incorporate some small element of steam into the story.

Let me just go down the Table of Contents and give you a spoiler-free synopsis of each tale, and I’ll then let you know which of the short stories are my favorites and why.

The first short story is titled Some Fortunate Future Day by Cassandra Clare. This tale could easily take place in the mid to late 1800s, and it’s set in a world that has been at war for some time with airships and other steam-powered weapons. A teenage girl, living alone with some automatons for company, discovers a wounded soldier near her home. As he recuperates, she falls in love. Her father, having gone off to join the war, has also left her with an unusual device that allows one to go back in time and relive events that didn’t go quite right the first time. And now that the soldier is healed up, he’s decided to leave and return to the war…

The Last Ride of the Glory Girls by Libba Bray is a western-themed tale with a group of female train robbers using a clockwork device to stop time, allowing them to pull of some amazing raids. Adelaide is a tinkerer, with some serious repair skills… she’s also been nicked by the law and been given a choice of going to jail or infiltrating the Glory Girls. She makes the obvious choice, but as she develops a friendship with the other young ladies, she realizes she needs a way out of both the life of crime and out of servitude to the lawmen.

Clockwork Fagin by Cory Doctorow tells the story of a group of orphans, all of them injured and maimed by the various steam-powered machines of the day during their apprenticeships, and their miserable day-to-day life at Saint Agatha’s Home for the Rehabilitation of Crippled Children. They’re mistreated by Grinder, the old caretaker of the children who puts them on the streets to beg and pockets the funds for his own use. Then a smart young lad named Marty Goldfarb shows up and decides to clean house. The children all have exceptional skills from their times working in the various industries, and Marty comes up with a plan to rid them of Grinder and make the group self-sufficient.

Seven Days: Beset by Demons by Shawn Cheng, is a short story in comic book format. A young inventor selling his wares falls in love with a young woman who shows an interest in his clockwork designs. But it’s not meant to be, and the inventor’s life takes a tumble as he is shown progressing through the Seven Deadly Sins.

Hand in Glove by Ysabeau S. Wilce is a steampunk police tale. A villain called the Califa Squeeze has been captured. A young detective is quite certain that the man caught by another popular detective is innocent. Using detection skills from A Manifesto of Modern Detection, the young detective attempts to find the actual villain and prove her value to the police force. What she finds is a proto-Frankenstein inventor (and monster, of sorts) who is able to shed light on the actual crime and its solution.

Ghost of Gwmlech Manor by Delia Sherman is just as it sounds — a ghost story but with a steam twist. An heir to a lost treasure moves in to Gwmlech Manor with all his inventions, automatons, and a solid disbelief in the supernatural. His new housemaid, however, discovers the truth about the stories of the haunting along with a danger to her new boss and his new home.

Gethsemane by Elizabeth Knox take place just before a volcanic eruption on a South Pacific island — a young witch who makes love potions and other charms for the island folk gets involved with a mysterious young cabin boy and his guardian. On the search for roots and other flowers to make her potions, they discover an area of the island that is being drilled and prepped to provide thermal energy… and the tragedy begins to unfold.

The Summer People by Kelly Link is a modern day story with a supernatural twist. A young girl is charged with taking care of the Summer People, a mysterious unseen group that provides gifts to those they favor… and danger to those they do not. Fran has the lifelong duty assigned to her and is looking for a way out of the responsibility and of the small town to which she finds herself a prisoner. The Summer People create some interesting clockwork toys — toys that Fran discovers may allow her to find a replacement caretaker.

Peace in Our Time by Garth Nix is a tale of revenge. An old man, retired from his duties as Grand Technomancer, wishes to be left alone to tend his garden. But a secret he’s been hiding for years is about to catch up to him when a mysterious visitor arrives and begins asking uncomfortable questions.

Nowhere Fast by Christopher Rowe takes place in a future where the oil has run out. The US is fragmented, with towns relying on themselves for food, protection, and their own forms of law. Bicycles are the norm, and cars are forbidden in Luz’s town. So when a stranger shows up riding an outlawed car running on alternative fuels, life is turned upside down for Luz as she tries to determine if the stranger is good or bad… and whether the stories he tells of other places around the country are worth leaving home for a look for herself.

Finishing School: A Colonial Adventure by Kathleen Jennings is another short story told in comic book form. Two ladies, Gwendoline Byrne and her friend, Cecile, are growing up and trying to determine what their roles in life will be. Cecile favors the traditional roles and education that are given to her, but Gwendoline dreams of adventures in the clouds.

Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks is a modern day tale of the life in school for an outcast. A young girl arrives at school with a flying cap and a notebook full of strange drawings of a steam-powered world. The outcast befriends her and gets an earful of stories of adventure and deception, all revolving around a character named Steam Girl. Her fiction begins to blend with her real-life story, and life begins to get worse at school for the two.

Everything Amiable Obliging by Holly Black is a Victorian love story with a twist. Do automatons have feelings? Can they fall in love? And what happens when the clockwork help is scorned? This story touches on the events in one household when a family’s traditions are ignored by a young girl in love… with an automaton.

Oracle Engine by M.T. Anderson is a steam-update of a classic Greek tragedy. Marcus Furius watches his family home burn to the ground, leaving him an orphan. He grows to become a great inventor, and tracks down the man responsible for his family’s demise to offer him a device that can predict the future and show him how the battles between his armies and his enemies will end.

All fourteen tales are enjoyable, but I especially liked Clockwork Fagin and Oracle Engine — the former because of the fun and interesting ways the author offers up to show this group of misfits taking control of their own lives and the latter because of how the author took an ancient Greek story and updated it with some gears and steam.

Most steampunk I read is in novel form, so I liked the change of pace here with short stories. The authors are forced to get to the point in the tales, and while the technology is sometimes explained, it’s best when it’s simply hinted at and left to the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest.

The anthology is geared to a YA readership, but I think adults who are fans of steampunk will enjoy many (or all) of the tales presented here.

I’d like to thank Rachel at Candlewick Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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