Steampunk. Queen Victoria, airships, and steam. Men who want to be Sherlock Holmes. Feisty women, often in jodhpurs. Fog. I’ve read good steampunk and I’ve read terrible steampunk. Because it’s a heavily stylized genre, some authors seem to think you can throw a few tropes together and make a decent novel. The Chronicles of Light and Shadow by British author Liesel Schwarz, fits firmly into the “good” category. The setting is a fairly typical cogwheels and carriages environment, but the novels have a fresh originality that many of their counterparts lack.
Whilst there’s no Holmes or Queen Victoria, Schwarz does employ steam, airships, and a feisty lead female. She also manages to blend in vampires, fairies, and fortune telling; pirates, warlocks, and clockwork hearts. Better still, rather than being confined to the fog-bound streets of London like most steampunk novels, Schwarz’s characters take in Paris, Vienna, Constantinople, San Francisco, and even Cambodia. It’s these varied settings that set the The Chronicles of Light and Shadow apart from the pack.
The trouble starts with precious cargo. Eleanor (Elle) Chance is asked to smuggle a special package to London. She is attacked, immediately after leaving the Parisian absinthe bar where she picked up her cargo. Elle barely escapes with her life, but her bag is stolen, and, along with it, the precious secret she was meant to deliver. The game is afoot!
The three novels follow Elle in the aftermath of the theft that changed her life. She is a strong central character. As an airship pilot, Elle is a woman in a man’s world. The lack of respectability of her position requires that she often take cargo that is not strictly legitimate. After the theft of her latest consignment she finds herself tangling with the shadowy Council of Warlocks. When Elle starts hearing voices in her head, it is not long before she discovers she’s in possession of a secret that she has even managed to keep from herself.
In Elle’s world magic is open, if mistrusted. Open and accepted but fading. There are two realms, Light and Shadow. The Shadow realm is where the fairies, vampires, and other mythical beings reside. The Light is the real world, and due to increased technology and a transferral of faith towards science, it is gradually squashing the Shadow out of existence. There is an interesting tension between the two sides. Both are at odds with one another, but both need the other to survive.
Villains come in the form of renegade warlocks, and a white witch with a terrifying clockwork army. I liked the way magic works in Schwarz’s world, particularly the interaction with fairies and other denizens of the Shadow. They add an extra dimension to the story, being both playful and sinister. The vampires, or “Nightwalkers” as they are termed here, largely move around in the background, adding further depth, without turning the story into something that sucks.
Although airships always seem to exist in steampunk novels, I’ve yet to read a series that features them so heavily. Steampunk dirigibles usually float around, offering local color but rarely becoming involved in the story unless an explosion is needed. Elle however, lives to fly, and as the series opens owns her own vessel, the Water Lily. I very much enjoyed the sections on board the airships, in particular the battles. Schwarz manages to make dog-fights between what are essentially cumbersome oversized cigars very exciting. By having air travel at the heart of her novels Schwarz is able to take her characters to a wide range of locales. Well-rendered alternative versions of world-famous cities are another draw for the Chronicles of Light and Shadow. If airships weren’t enough, there’s even a trip on the Orient Express from warlock-controlled Venice to an exotic and magically charged Constantinople.
The Chronicles of Light and Shadow is a solidly entertaining series. The books won’t blow you away. There are some nice extensions of familiar steampunk themes, but nothing mold-breaking. The middle novel A Clockwork Heart is, however, a little bit special. It is set in a trope-embracing fog-bound London, but the creepy menace of the “White Lady” and her army of clockwork zombies is chilling. I found I had to read this one late into the night to make sure I found out what happened. Though not marketed at the Young Adult audience, there is nothing in here that I warn against for older children. The books are written in the tradition steampunk Victorian detective style. There’s no bad language or excessive violence. If you’re looking for a new steampunk series to try and you like strong female leads, you could do a lot worse than Liesel Schwarz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow.
Disclosure: The publisher sent me copies of all three books for review. The books are published by Del Rey in the US and UK. All three books are available in paperback and as ebooks now.