Monday, November 21, 2011

Steampunk Books, Part Two

I've spent the last two weeks in bed with a mysterious flu-like plague and reading was one of the few activities I could enjoy. So I bring you more steampunk book reviews! (My first post of book reviews is here.)

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
This book is really a steampunk must-read. This is alternate history that is just very slightly different than real history, and which all goes back to one moment in time. I don't want to spoil much, but this is a book about time travel, with butterfly effect-like cause-and-effect. It's certainly one of the best time travel books I've ever read. Besides the sci-fi and steampunk elements, this is a VERY Victorian novel. The author KNOWS his Victorians. This is still the world of Rich White Men in Clubs, and the lack of any significant female characters is both historically realistic and annoying. You will get more out of this book if you know something about the Victorian era and the major thinkers and inventors of the day, as they are all present in this book, but it's not required. There is a second book in this series, called The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. It's not quite as good as the first one, and it feels a bit all over the place, but it's still fun.

The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire, Book 1) by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith - I approached this book with some trepidation, I admit. 'Not vampires, again!' I thought. But I LOVED this book. The set-up is that vampires came out from hiding in the 1880's and took over pretty much all of Europe and Northern Asia. The surviving humans fled to tropical climes (as vampires can't stand the heat) and set up new ruling empires. Cut to 2020, and the heir to one of these empires is about to be married, when her airship is attacked and she is taken prisoner by vampires. The vampires in this series are pretty much totally unique: more an entirely different predator species than the typical romantic figure. And the protagonist Adele is a FANTASTIC female character. She's been trained by a samurai since childhood to kick ass, but she IS a princess after all, so she still has some things to learn. There is also a central romance that I TOTALLY bought into. It even made me run out to buy the second book in the series, The Rift Walker (Vampire Empire, Book 2). I enjoyed it, although my fever was pretty high when I read it, so I'm not entirely sure I remember much of it.

As for the series steampunk cred, it's a bit light. There are airships, and goggles that identify vampires, and a few other gadgets here and there. The alternate universe is quite interesting, as humanity rejected religion in favor of science after the vampire attacks. But to be honest, the focus is mostly on sword-fights and romance. If pressed to criticize the books, I would say that it feels like one of the authors wrote the interpersonal stuff while the other wrote the action. I say that because I felt the writing was inferior in the action scenes, and often found myself confused as to what was going on. But I could ignore that and wait for more character stuff.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld - This young adult series is one of the best steampunk books out there. Another alternate history, this one shows a Britain which has embraced genetically engineered creatures such as huge, helium filled whale-airships. While Germany and other countries have advanced mechanical science to its pinnacle with huge mechanical walkers and similar machines. Thus this series is set in an alternate WWI fought by these warring technologies. So it's really more dieselpunk than it is steampunk. There are two main characters: one a girl posing as a boy in order to be accepted into Britain's air force, and one a young Austrian aristocrat on the run. There's really nothing about these book that is not delightful. The sequels are Behemoth (Leviathan) and Goliath (Leviathan), though I haven't yet read Goliath. (But I'm dying to!)

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers - This is an older book, and from one report I've heard, one of the original inspirations for the term steampunk. I've read it twice, and I do highly recommend it. It's a time travel story, about a group that travels back to 1810 and a historian who gets stuck there. The story is weird, supernatural, and incredibly scary. There is some horror in this book that will always stay with me. This is a book that mostly takes place in the underbelly of 19th century London, where magicians conduct horrible experiments and just staying alive is almost impossible. This book isn't perfect, and there's not much actual "steampunk" as we understand it now, but it's certainly a recommended read.

Grandville by Bryan Talbot - This graphic novel is difficult to describe. Set in an alternate history in which Britain lost the Napoleonic War and became part of the French Empire, only to gain independence through terrorism, and somehow this led to a steampunk civilization. And anthropomorphic animals rule the earth with humans as their servants. Whatever. All that is hand-wavy stuff to set up the story, in which Inspector Lebrock of Scotland Yard hunts down an escaped murderer through lots of intimidation and violence. The story was pretty satisfying, but the really delightful part of these books are the illustrations. Nearly every panel is worth studying for the rich background details. Sometimes it's just some cool steampunk stuff in the background, sometimes little visual jokes, and sometimes sly references to famous art. The skill in crafting these panels is what really charmed me in this book. The sequel is Grandville Mon Amour

I'm feeling like I'm forgetting something, but most likely I'm thinking of recent additions to series I've reviewed before. Like Ganymede (Clockwork Century), which was an excellent addition to the Clockwork Century series, with a kick-ass female protagonist of color.


  1. Wait, there is a 3rd Westerfeld book and we don't own it? WTF?