If you’re not a steampunk fan, then please feel free to move on… nothing to see here. Yes, yes, yes… steampunk has jumped the shark… it’s just a fad… yada yada.
Still with me? Okay, good, because since the first week of December 2012, I have been reading almost nothing but steampunk books — fiction, non-fiction, and some in-between stuff. Steampunk is NOT dead… but my brain may very well be close to it. That said, over the next few days I’ll be sharing with you over a dozen different steampunk books that I’ve absolutely enjoyed. I’ve still got two that I’m finishing up, but hopefully I’ll have them completed in a few days.
I have to tell you — my steampunk library has now hit the two-shelf mark. It’s easily surpassed my 20+ cyberpunk collection (started back in 1987 with the discovery of Neuromancer that changed everything), and my Electronics collection never stood a chance with its measly 12-15 books. While working on my English degree, I chose the Victorian Era as a specialty for a few classes to focus my reading and writing — I’m certain having a deeper understanding of the culture, the technology, the politics, and the lifestyles of this period have fueled my interest in steampunk. At the same time, I was working on an engineering degree and gaining a better understanding of the amazing importance of the Industrial Revolution as I studied manufacturing methods and techniques. I think it was inevitable that Steampunk would win me over as a favorite genre.
So, sit back my, fellow brave explorers, and let me share with you some of the latest and greatest steam-powered entertainment that I’ve discovered. These are in no particular order… just pulling from the three short piles and hoping you’ll find one or more that pique your interest.
Steampunk Holmes: Legacy of the Nautilus by P.C. Martin
Ah, yes… Sherlock Holmes. Seems a match made in heaven, a fictional detective putting wonderful steam-powered devices to use in his investigations. This was a Kickstarter project that I somehow missed, but I would absolutely have backed it! As someone who has read every one of Doyle’s novellas and short stories concerning Holmes and Watson, I was expecting a series of short stories (I had somehow glossed over the book’s subtitle) but imagine my surprise to find an actual novella-length mystery involving The Nautilus! Yes, that Nautilus!
I do not believe I could write a Sherlock Holmes story using the same style as Doyle, so I was very impressed at Martin’s careful mimicry used in the back-and-forth banter between Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and Mycroft. Oh yes, Mycroft figures quite prominently in this tale, but Martin has taken some liberties that I have to admit now, after finishing the story, were perfect choices… one being that Mycroft is Holmes’ older sister! She still has her government position, and I just loved how this change of gender dominoed into a number of interesting plot twists.
As for the mystery… it’s a good one. There’s plenty of head-scratching that comes with any good Holmes story. Just as Watson only gets snippets of Holmes’ reasoning, so does the reader. Again, the style of writing and the pace of the plotting matches carefully the canon stories.
But where’s the steam, you ask? As with any good steampunk story, if the steam-technology takes a back seat to the story, the writer has done a good job. You have to remember that if this world really exists, the technology is accepted and integrated into the daily routine… so while Watson is frightened to death of Holmes’ steam-powered bicycle, the Widowmak’r (with a sidecar added by Holmes to try to make Watson feel safer — he doesn’t), he also enjoys the use of his mechanical arm. It’s a London that’s easily recognizable because the technological changes just aren’t that many. Well, except for The Nautilus. That’s a game changer. I don’t want to give away too much, but I think I should be safe in telling you that The Nautilus has been found (scuttled) and its design elements, including a propulsion tech that is beyond the Queen’s best engineers, have been recorded and saved on a series of punchcards that have been stolen. As you can guess, Holmes has been tasked with their recovery.
Steampunk Holmes was a joy to read, and I believe Martin has left herself plenty of room to expand on her version of Doyle’s world and detective. If a sequel ever comes around, I’ll be first in line to see where the author goes next.
What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower by Margaret Killjoy
I’ve read a lot of steampunk books over the years, but I can honestly say I’ve never read one that let me choose the direction of the tale.
Yep, you heard it right — the book is introduced as Being an Adventure of Your Own Choosing. But this is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book for kids. No way.
The hero, you… well, he’s a bit of a drinker. Absinthe, to be exact. His name is Gregory, and his story starts with him simply trying to open his eyes and get out of bed to investigate an unusual sound outside his small room. He’s the caretaker of a clock tower, so one of the first decisions you’ve got to make is whether to go and investigate.
Don’t want to investigate? That’s okay. Don’t do it. But sooner or later you’ve got to get out of that bed, so you’ll be given another chance. Don’t want to get out of bed? Well, the author has a very good sense of humor and I love her method for ending the story when you decide to avoid decision making. More than once I chose to see what happens when indecision takes over, and the author puts it quite bluntly in one conclusion by saying “You need a book to read, to be certain, but not this one.”
But should you choose to actually make yourself useful, you’ll find plenty to do here! You see, the Gnomes have been keeping the Goblins enslaved in the mines for centuries, and the Goblins have decided that enough is enough. The book is 183 pages, but I’m honestly not certain that I’ve encountered every plot yet. There are choices that will put you fighting side-by-side with the goblins against the gnomes, choices that will send you to plead the goblins’ case with the gnomes, and choices that will send you to spend some time with some disgusting creatures called the kabouters who don’t seem to care about being under the gnomes’ control.
I love the gnomes, by the way. Described as wearing a type of armor resembling early underwater diving helmets and gear, it took one of the half dozen hand sketches scattered throughout the book for me to see the humor in the small-statured warriors.
The book offers many more endings and plot lines than a standard CYOA book. It’s a small book, too, so I’ve been carrying it with me for a few weeks as I’ve enjoyed finding new story endings and plot details. Even though I know I haven’t hit them all, there have been enough choices that I’m beginning to get the bigger picture… and it’s definitely fun!
(I’ve only found one error in the book, by the way — Gregory is described as wearing a bowler, but the gentleman on the cover is clearly wearing a stovepipe! Easily overlooked, especially facing down the gnome warriors armed with purple-ray-firing rifles!)
Professor Jonathan T. Buck’s Mysterious Airship Notebook by Keith Riegert & Sam Kaplan, Illustrated by Jonathan Buck
Beautiful! That’s the word that comes to mind with this 32 page hardback book. Described as The Lost Step-By-Step Dirigible Drawings From The Pioneer of Steampunk Design, this little book might be marketed towards a younger audience, but any steampunk fan is going to want it on the shelf. Why? Three reasons:
1. It’s a mystery! Buck disappeared along with his Air Paddle Steamer, the Claire, a steam-powered riverboat dirigible after radioing that he’d found a lost city. The book documents clues, maps, individuals, and animals… a mix of sketches, photos, and more make up the book’s evidence and the reader is left to solve the mystery.
2. It’s a tutorial! As the book progresses, the reader is taught how to draw a steam-powered airship. Options are provided that include a main hull, propellers, cabins, balloons, gauges, and more. My favorite has to be the steps to draw a boiler. Very creative.
3. It’s a historical record! Timelines, maps, and inventories are provided that help flesh out the story that’s being told. Smudges, tape, and bits of hand lettering give the book a realistic feel. The Equipment List alone (page 26) is an amazing list of items that every steampunk fan will turn into a quest. (I’m trying to convert my office to a steampunk theme, and this list is pretty much being used as a shopping list.)
At the end of the book is an encrypted message from Buck that explains the fate of the Claire. There’s a smart method for decrypting the message, and young and old readers will want to investigate the book thoroughly before giving in and reading the solution. Absolutely enjoyable!
Last year I was fortunate enough to get an early review copy of Steampunk Poe, and it turned out to be one of my favorite steampunk books of the entire year. I’m a huge fan of Poe, and having some of his best works side-by-side with some beautiful steam-infused illustrations was a great pairing.
Well, the folks at Running Press Classics have done it again… and again. They’ve released one book with three of H.G. Wells’ tales and another book with an unabridged version Shelley’s masterpiece. It’s been a decade or more since I’ve read any of these stories, so this was a great excuse to sit down and enjoy them again.
Steampunk H.G. Wells provides three tales — novels The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and short story The Country of the Blind. Steampunk Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein provides a reprint of the third edition of her novel that contained Shelley’s introduction to the story (versus the first edition which did not), required reading for my fellow students and me as a primer for understanding her frame of mind and the description of the figure that would become Dr. Frankenstein.
While Steampunk Poe provided a number of stunning illustrations scattered throughout the book, RPC has really upped the ante this time around — both books contain a larger number of illustrations, almost one full-color image every four to five pages.
These are stories that most of us know well; for those who do not, let me just say that these two volumes certainly would be the ones I would love to have had the first time I read these authors’ works. For any students out there who might be assigned any or all of these tales, the images contained in each book support the respective text with a unique style.
The images for the Wells book are all full-page insets with a unique rounded plate in the center containing the main image and surrounded a patchwork of rusty, metal plates… as if you’re staring out the viewport of an airship, observing extremely life-life images of The Time Traveller… or the Martians.
As for Frankenstein, these images are presented in a card-like format, reminding me of Tarot cards but labeled with specific scenes from the story (some with location) and always slightly askew. (There are a number of them that I would love to have as framed works of art.)
These two hardbacks are sitting next to Steampunk Poe, worthy editions to my library. I’m looking forward to the day when I can share them with my sons — I don’t know when (or if) these become recommended reading in school, but I know the illustrations will well received.
Tomorrow: Steampunk reference material reviews…
Note: I’d like to thank every one of the publishers for providing review copies.