The Doomsday Vault by Steven Harper - I don't know why I begin most steampunk books with low expectations. When I haven't heard of the book or the author before, well, I always at least halfway expect it to suck. Which means that I'm almost always pleasantly surprised.
In the case of The Doomsday Vault, I was extremely pleasantly surprised. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys steampunk.
The world depicted by Harper is very close to historical Victorian England. All the real world societal rules still apply. Things are very difficult for women and racial minorities. The only difference is that there is a "clockwork plague" that causes illness, death, and sometimes zombies. So zombies are roaming the streets of London, only coming out at night or under cover of fog. They aren't the huge threat that zombies usually are in fiction, they really are something of a minor annoyance, except that if they touch you they can infect you with the plague.
But for a very small number of people infected with the plague, the results are different. They become "clockworkers", essentially mad science geniuses. They don't live long, but they create incredible technological inventions while becoming more and more insane. So society at large benefits from some of these inventions, while shunning anyone who has any contact with anyone infected.
The heroine of the book is a young woman who lost several family members to the plague and therefore is shunned by society regardless of the fact that her father is a baron. She's seeking only to find a wealthy husband to improve her family's fortune and save her respectability. Her secret desire is to spend her time working on automatons and putting her mechanical skills to use, but her duty to her family prevents her from acting on those desires. The hero is a young airman from America who is stranded in London after pirates attack his ship. The two of them eventually encounter one another and become involved in a series of mysterious events.
The feel of this book reminds me most strongly of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series. This book doesn't have the same amount of humor, but otherwise the attitude and tone is similar. Alice Michaels must deal with her own secret skills and various shadowy conspiracies while also trying to fit in with upper class society, regardless of how much she wishes she could rebel against it. The idea of uncontrollable mad scientists constantly inventing things in fits of inspiration is also reminiscent of the webcomic Girl Genius, though again with less humor.
The lack of humor isn't really a negative though, as the implications of the events in the novel are serious. Even the personal struggles of the heroine are disturbing due to the lack of freedom she has as a Victorian woman. In short, things have weight and reality to them, which I appreciate.
To summarize, if you are looking for an enjoyable steampunk read, you can't go wrong with The Doomsday Vault. Plus it's the first in a series and I'm looking forward to spending more time with these characters and this world.