Monday, January 17, 2011

Steampunk: Sid Vicious, meet Queen Victoria

Thanks to Georgette Heyer, I’ve always been a fan of the regency romance. But in recent years I’ve started reading more paranormal and contemporary romances, and by chance I picked up Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which combines a paranormal romance with a Victorian setting. It turns out that Carriger’s novel is an excellent example of the steampunk genre. For those of you who, like me, have never heard of steampunk, Meljean Brook describes it on her webpage as “historical science fiction.”[i] Steampunk novels feature anachronistic technology that relies on steam, so you’ll see a lot of dirigibles for air travel and mechanical devices powered by steam engines. Two really great examples of the steampunk genre that I’ve read recently are Gail Carriger’s Soulless and Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, and if you’re looking for fun, interesting books with amazing world-building, I can highly recommend both.

Gail Carriger’s Soulless

Ms. Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series currently includes three novels (Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless), and all three are laugh out loud funny. The first of the series, Soulless, introduces Carriger’s heroine, Alexia Tarabotti. The novel begins during a dreadfully dull ball, and Alexia is hiding in the library, only to be accosted by a vampire. Instead of being alarmed by the vampire’s appearance, Alexia is indignant that the vampire would dare approach her without a proper introduction. She chides the vamp (“Manners!”) as she defends herself with her trusty parasol by bopping him on the head, then accidentally killing him with her hair pin. To prevent scandal, she feigns a swoon when she hears others approaching, although she is more distressed that the dead vampire fell on the treacle tart, thus robbing her of a proper tea.   

In this alternate version of Victorian England, supernatural beings are an everyday occurrence. Alexia is on the shelf, as she is in her mid-twenties, half-Italian, and quite intelligent, and it is made clear to the reader that in good society, any one of those qualities would have been enough to doom her to spinsterhood. Additionally she has quite the forceful personality, which results in hilarious conversations with her asinine family and the supernatural beings in the novel. Her interactions with Lord Conall Maccon, the alpha werewolf of the London pack, are delightfully witty. He cannot understand why men are not more interested in her, since she is no shrinking violet and possesses a superb figure. That does not prevent his objecting to her attempts to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearances of rove vampires and werewolves. Alexia is determined to find some useful occupation for herself, since marriage is clearly (to her mind) out of the question. Add in Alexia’s preternatural state, which allows her to return any supernatural being to a human state with merely a touch, and you have a mix of characteristics that make for a fascinating and funny heroine. If you’re looking for a light-hearted mystery and romance, I highly recommend Gail Carriger’s Soulless!

Meljean Brook The Iron Duke

Meljean Brook’s novel also takes place in England, features steam-powered airships, and has a strong-willed heroine. However, the world in which the action takes place is much darker than that of Ms. Carriger’s novel. Two hundred years before the novel begins, an Asiatic Horde (think Ghengis Khan with technology) overtook Europe and Great Britain by infecting sugar with nanoagents called bugs. These bugs healed anyone infected with them, but they also allowed the Horde to use radio waves to control anyone infected. The British unknowingly infected themselves by consuming sugar with their tea and crumpets, which made it all too easy for the Horde to conquer England. The Horde maintained control of the population by building a tower in London that emitted radio waves that would control the bugs. These radio waves then left the person infected at the mercy of the Horde – he would remain completely aware while his body would be out of his control.

The novel begins twenty years after the titular Iron Duke, Rhys Trahaearn, sails his pirate ship up the Thames and blasts the Horde’s Tower to bits. England is now free from the Horde’s control, but most people are still infected by the bugs. The aristocrats and wealthy merchants who fled England when the Horde conquered the island have returned, uninfected. The conflict between those infected with the bugs (buggers) and those who have prospered in the New World (bounders) takes center stage when the heroine, Mina, is called from a Victory Ball celebration to the Iron Duke’s estate. Mina is a Detective Inspector with Scotland Yard, but she is also a product of her mother’s rape at the hands of the Horde during one of the Horde induced sexual frenzies. As a result, her features are clearly Asiatic, and she experiences harassment on a daily basis from Londoners still bitter over Horde occupation. Once she arrives at the Iron Duke’s estate, she discovers that a corpse has been dropped on his house from an airship, and she must solve the mystery of the man’s death while attempting to defend herself from Trahaearn’s amorous advances.

Brook has created a detailed and compelling world in her novel. Mina is a complex and principled heroine who longs to give in to her desire for the Iron Duke but knows that doing so would result in her and her family’s ruin. How Brook resolves this difficulty while the two protagonists solve the mystery and save the day makes for a fascinating read.


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