Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 12, 2011

Some library books

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:51 pm

These aren’t getting full reviews, because the library want them back.

Christopher Moore – Fool

I’m vaguely familiar with Moore’s other work—not any specific book, mind, just in a general sense—and I’m quite fond of the court-jester theme, so this looked worth a go. The multiple comparisons to Pratchett on the cover were a bit offputting, reeking as they did of desperation, but then the overwhelming yellowness of it was worse. It went on the pile for a week or so, till I picked it up to give it a try… and discovered from the Cast of Characters page that it was a retelling of King Lear from the Fool’s point of view. Moore takes some license with the plot, but it’s very much Lear, and if I’d known that from the cover then it would have been welded to my hand till I left the library, and I’d have started it when I got home.

This sort of marketing decision is inexplicable… advertising it as a Shakespeare retelling might put off some mainstream readers who wanted bawdiness, cock jokes, and action-filled violence[1], but why would you want to sucker those sorts of readers into picking up your comedic Shakespeare retelling anyway? Especially if it meant losing out on a new demographic who hadn’t encountered your author before.

Jake Arnott – The Devil’s Paintbrush

Steampunks just wish their book could smell like this book. It’s set in Paris, 1903, and describes a meeting between two iconic characters of the age: Hector “Fighting Mac” Macdonald and Aleister Crowley. Warfare, magic, sex, the arts, class issues, powerful & dangerous new technology. Recommended, and don’t be taken in by the cover—this is not fluff.


[1] But only the ones who know nothing about Shakespeare.

January 11, 2011

Steam Powered – Steampunk Lesbian Stories (ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft)

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 8:17 pm

This anthology works well both as a collection of short work with a steampunk sensibility, and as romance & erotica. Not all of them feature explicit (or any) sex, but they all have good central women, often women of colour at that.

The first story is a novelette by NK Jemisin (author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), called The Effluent Engine; you can read it online here. It’s a secret-agent story, wherein our hero is sent from free Haiti to New Orleans in order to enlist the help of a brilliant chemical engineer. If he can assist them in refining & stabilizing the effluent from rum distillation, their airships can run rings around the French forces. He may not want to help, but he has a handsome (and equally brilliant) sister…

That’s one of my favourites from the anthology, but a few others come close. Where the Ocean Meets the Sky, by Sara M Harvey, sees an airship privateer come into port in San Francisco for an audience with Emperor Joshua Norton I, and not quite lose her head over a lovely Irish mooring-ship clerk.

“You’ve done it!” He cried, coming forward more like an excited child than a man of majesty. “I mean, lots of folk said they were going to and I signed lots of those letters, but you’re the first one who has returned with tribute. Brilliant!” He clapped his small, square hands together and reached into the box. He did not put one finger on any of the precious metals, but instead brought forth the honey jar. The warm light made it glow perfectly amber in the glass and the courtiers made appreciative noises. “I can tell just by the look of it that it is real Tupelo. The finest honey in the world.” He turned the jar over in his hands and watched the air bubble slowly morph and move. “My mother used to serve this on sourdough.” He spoke in strange tones, like one remembering a dream.

Steel Rider (by Rachel Manija Brown), Truth and Life by Shira Lipkin, and The Hands that Feed by Matthew Kressel make a trio of Jewish stories; emet is the character that gives them life. The second of those, an economical tale of a young woman who becomes a skilled engineer, is my favourite of the three.

Rivka, he said, baking is also a science. Embroidery will teach you precision. All of these things your mother wants you to do, they all give you skills you can use here.

Mike Allen’s Sleepless, Burning Life is a very Moorcockian trip through cosmic clockwork, in search of “the dark-eyed dancer who made the cosmos turn“. The worldbuilding is beautiful, and I’d have loved to see a full-length novel with a similar conceit in the same setting.

The Padishah Begum’s Reflections, by Shweta Narayan, centres on Jahanara Begum, remade after her accident as a mechanical—a woman of silver and enamel, of clockwork and gears—who becomes a cunning and powerful ruler in her own right. A delegation from Revolutionary France have arrived, bringing with them Madeleine Vaucanson, weaver, engineer, and expert with Jacquard looms. As a love object, she is unusual; but of course, she’s so much more than that.

Crickets and the garden’s song of leaf and water settled into Jahanara’s silence. The weaver—she could be the one Jahanara had been hoping for. She was neither young nor pretty as humans counted these things; her hair showed silver, her jaw was long, and her body more square than rounded. She clutched a blue pashmina shawl tightly over the neck of a diaphanous gown, and her shoes exemplified why European ladies must lean on the arms of their men.

None of the stories struck me as bad or inadequate, but these are the ones I enjoyed the most. In Georgina Bruce’s Brilliant, I disliked the love interest (a spoilt, sulky brat) enough to skip to the next story, but that’s a purely personal reaction. A few need trigger warnings: for rape in the case of Teresa Wymore’s very dark Under the Dome, and forced mental-health hospitalization in Clockwork and Music by Tara Sommers.

Overall, these stories are good and well-collected, and present a refreshingly broad view of “steampunk”, with an above-average proportion of real prizes.

Cherie Priest – Boneshaker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 6:20 pm

This is the first serious novel-length piece of self-identified steampunk I’ve read, and I’m more impressed with it than I’d expected. It seems rather churlish to praise a novel by the flaws it lacks, but I fear this oft-maligned genre requires a little of that before I pass to its undoubted virtues. Most of the fluff I’d read previously was not much more than a caricature of Victorian England, and often seemed rather confused about which literary era it was from. Infested with aristocrats and implausible brasstech, it seemed rather to be a celebration of a hypocritical, decadent Empire than a problematisation.

Boneshaker, on the other hand, is utterly American in its mythology; set in an alternate 1863, where the Klondike gold rush (and thus Seattle) boomed much earlier, it constructs itself without any reference to class divisions or to the English beyond a mention of their forces in the South. It’s also a post-apocalyptic dystopia, with the survivors living beyond the two-hundred-foot wall around a town centre infested with – well, it’s an early 21st century post-apocalyptic dystopia, what do you think is infesting it?

Considered as steampunk—which is to say as a literary universe featuring anarchists, revolutionaries, strange and ambitious technology, realistic solutions to implausible problems, no shortcuts for hard work, and the dead hand of economic & political hegemony[1]—it’s really good. Our protagonist is a middle-aged widow, aptly named Briar, and she takes us on a tour of Seattle’s abandoned inner city during her efforts to rescue her son. The family itself is a microcosm of the city, torn apart and left damaged by capitalism and the American Dream—Briar’s husband, Leviticus Blue, destroyed them both in his efforts to rob a bank using his immense tunnelling machine, the titular Boneshaker.

The survivors of the disaster, predictably, have organised themselves into a series of competing gangs, armed with experimental weapons and kept from the more-than-deadly gas by improvised air-conditioning technology, made from “treated cloth, paper, pitch, anything else that might seal out the awful gas outside”.

I’ve never been a zombie fan, but they work perfectly with steampunk, even steampunk without British aristocracy[2]. The pervasive influence of Something (a poisonous gas, here) turns otherwise perfectly ordinary people into ravenous monsters, intent on eating you and/or turning you into one of them—it’s no coincidence that the three “infectious” monster types (zombie, vampire, and werewolf) have become Big Business in the last few decades.

For a zombie novel, Boneshaker is curiously anaemic. The horror of zombies depends on the idea that these are real people, turned into mindless ravening monsters – people like you, people you knew, perhaps even you yourself – and there’s very little of that here. We get quite a few lovingly detailed descriptions of walking corpses, perhaps sorted by type or previous occupation, but the closest we come to seeing a person we already knew “turned” is having to watch a precautionary mercy killing, and a moment of tension as everyone waits to hear whether Briar’s arm is going to have to be amputated.

That’s not a serious fault, though, because the “rotters” are more of an atmospheric sideshow or an environmental hazard, and the plot resolution doesn’t really involve them at all.

This is a well-constructed novel, very gripping & readable, with a great deal of deep structure and a very solid literary root system ranging from Arthur Miller to Mark Helprin, and it features several tough, competent older women. Definitely recommended, and I’m going to have to look for more of Priest’s work in future.


[1] I don’t define by material-culture tropes, so the “goths discover brown” and “random brass shite” stereotypes are out, and I have to try and make a stab at themes. This is not intended to be exhaustive, complete, or even particularly accurate. Other suggestions very welcome!
[2] They’re rather stupid, but unstoppable. They often walk with a strange lurching gait, they have an odd slurred accent and very small vocabularies if they can communicate at all, and they thrive on the bodies & brains of other people. All these things also characterize zombies.

October 13, 2010

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Angry Robot, 416pp paperback. Out in the UK since January 2010, published in the US and in ebook form October 2010.

“This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.” — Inspector Irene Adler

The Bookman is set in an alternate Victorian era, and it’s intensely focused on the myths and legends of English literary geekdom. It has echoes of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Perdido Street Station, The Tempest, and The Eyre Affair, with a large chunk of Mayhew thrown in for good measure.

It’s set not long after 1887, several hundred years after an expedition to the Calibanic Isle results in the wholesale replacement of Britain’s ruling classes with giant poetry-obsessed lizards. Lord Shakespeare was the first of the great Poet-Prime Ministers; Moriarty is the most recent. And yes, that Moriarty. At the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre, Henry Irving performs his own adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner supported by Beerbohm Tree. (Described as a young actor; Tree was actually 34 and quite famous in 1887, and we know the book isn’t set any earlier because it mentions a new air from Ruddigore. I mention this nitpick, because it’s the only factual or chronological inexactitude I’ve been able to find in the course of an entire book of Victoriana.)

Opposition to Les Lézards’ rule is rising, however; Karl Marx, John (“Don’t call me Nevil”) Maskelyne, and Isabella Beeton meet in a cellar underneath a Charing Cross bookseller, and notorious terrorist organization the Persons from Porlock besiege literary figures with the nonsense of Edward Lear. And then there’s the titular Bookman, assassin and anarchist.

Tidhar’s style is rather readable, and drops into an intensely Dickensian mode for some descriptive passages. He clearly knows and loves London well, and does a very good job of bringing out the city’s character.

“He stopped in his walk through Leicester Square and bought one of the sausages so advertised, covered in oil, dripping fried onions, held in a soggy bun. Everywhere there was the smell of cooking foods, and the lights in all the public houses were burning, and the cries of the drinking class sounded, merry and loud, from every open window but were drowned by the street merchants.”

There is one problem I need to highlight, however, and that’s the Bechdel test failure. There are female characters; a couple of them are quite important to the political plot going on in the background, but they don’t get much screen time. The protagonist has a love interest, who spends most of the book dead, and a female relative who appears briefly and helps out. None of them get to talk to each other. Given that in this society, a woman can be an Inspector at Scotland Yard, that seems rather a missed opportunity.

December 24, 2009

Steampunk, SF, Fantasy – same difference, really

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:33 pm

I want to start this off by reviewing Stephen Hunt’s Rise of the Iron Moon. It’s the third in a series, starting with The Court of the Air, but it stands well on its own.

It’s steampunk; that’s more or less inarguable. The question is, what makes it steampunk? It has brasstech[1], a more or less Victorian social and aesthetic atmosphere (complete with workhouses), and steam-powered robots. So those are more or less classic markers of the SF subgenre of steampunk.

On the other hand, it also has multiple races (including the aforementioned steam-powered robots, who are sapient and self-perpetuating), a nation state under attack by invaders, and magic – even a bloody magic sword. So that’s your “gaslamp fantasy” for you.

As far as the -punk component goes, it’s got a royal family subjugated and kept in squalor (though still Genetically Superior – less a Missing Heir rising from obscurity to save the world than a set of heirs kept around in case they were needed), a Parliament that works by violence, and a lot of blood and death.

And as far as non-Victorian SF goes, it’s also pure Dan Dare-grade docsmith stuff, with two-fisted fights in the dank, strangely twisted interior of the – well, you can fill in the details yourself. They’re all there.

So that’s a set of roots like Japanese knotweed, there. One of the fundamental problems with the classic SF movement – you know, the ultra-rationalist idea of prophesying the future, introducing a novum and extrapolating what would really happen in a world with that novum, these other three random hidden assumptions, and the rest of society staying exactly the same as it was – is, well, that it doesn’t work. What we’ve learned over decades of doing that is that doing that doesn’t bloody well work.

What does work, on the other hand, is the glamour and wonder of Science. The thrill of engineering, of invention, of delight in craft and Mastery. It may well be technologically implausible these days, but then the only useful definition of “plausible” for SF purposes is “things nobody’s yet proved won’t work”. Only the glory of engineers lives forever.

What really is implausible – what breaks our immersion, what reminds us constantly that these are historical texts and must be interpreted through a lens of their time – is the social and cultural context that these Science Heroes live in. And one of the criticisms that gets constantly levelled at steampunk is that same one – that the social and cultural context is wrong, implausible, impossible.

The criticism’s correct, of course. But it’s also missing the point, because that’s the idea. It’s not wide-eyed unicorn-spattered utopianism; it’s deliberate dissonance, it’s the invocation of a time and culture that never was, never shall be, and never should have been[2], in order to express those same tropes of wonder and delight. It gets the implausible cultural context out of the way to start with, in the full recognition that there’s always going to be some there, for someone, and we may as well start with one that nobody’s ever been in, and which we all know[3] is heavily problematic, but is nevertheless familiar to everyone who’s likely to be reading it.


[1] That is, non-Victorian level of technology powered by Victorian means – which strictly speaking Does Not Work, and if it did would require a hell of a lot of constant intervention by a great many skilled workmen and unskilled labourers. Sigrid Ellis has a fantastic rant on that, even namechecking Bazalgette and talking about the wide base of the tech tree needed to support all of that.

[2] Steampunk Victoriana is full of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists, but it’s also full of street urchins, black-gang crewmen, and factory kids. This ain’t no Deco future here.

[3] You’d hope, anyway. But there are still some people who don’t know that “Victorian” is basically shorthand for “racist, sexist, classist, imperialist, colonialist, and practically everything else you can think of”.

July 6, 2009

Jonathan Green – Unnatural History

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:31 pm

With this, Abaddon[1] Press’s first in the Pax Britannia[2] series, another patchwork cadaver gets unceremoniously slung on the creaking, lurching bandwagon of steampunk.

I had this pressed upon me as a free gift at Eastercon LX, and I have no hesitation in saying it was worth more than I paid for it. I got at least 25p worth of entertainment from writing this review, after all.

There’s a half-decent novella in there, maybe a hundred pages of sparkling wit and madcap action; but it’s encumbered by four things.

The first is the author’s tin ear for dialogue, and inability to separate narrative voice from character; the second is the unoriginality of each tired set-piece scene, from the confrontation with Scotland Yard at the Scene of the Crime to the life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train and the hero’s unorthodox entry to a zeppelin in flight[3]; the third is the glutinous web of what we’ll charitably refer to as plot that binds those scenes together; and the fourth is the excess two hundred pages of leadenly prolix padding that surrounds it all.

It’s written very much in the style of a Strand part-work, and each chapter takes care to recap large parts of the one before. To add to this weight of unnecessary verbiage, there’s also rather a lot of infodump exposition; it appears that Green had simultaneously been writing the roleplaying game sourcebook of the world, and by some budgetary exigence had been forced to combine the two projects into one.

The characters appear to have been ordered from a catalogue, possibly quite cheaply. I suspect that that would be because the millionaire playboy secret agent explorer[4], the ex-prizefighter butler, the ruthless femme fatale villain, the incompetent police inspector, the amoral scientist, and the machiavellian politician would quite happily all roll up and fit in one cardboard tube.

About all I can say about the book’s ending is that it has one, and that the plot strand (there is only one) is resolved, and that in the proper style some of the enemies have escaped for the sequel. If we are lucky, there will not be a sequel.

As far as further detail goes, either I have blotted it from my mind in the last ten minutes or I found myself incapable of reading it with any attention due to the sheer horror of both the prose and the internal logic of the proceedings.

It reads as though the Good Doktor Frankenstein, despite his medical degree, had been unable to tell fresh corpse parts from the sundered limbs of Action Man, and instead of pulling the lever to surge life-giving electricity into his creation had instead attached strings and made it dance the Funky Chicken.


[1] What a name. I suppose at least it has the merit of keeping their books to their intended audiences.
[2] Oh, look, unnecessary Latin. Now there’s a surprise. The text refers to “Magna Britannia” and “Londinium Maximum”, and at one point Our Protagonist gets into a fist fight with something “the academics would give the name homo lizardus or perhaps lizardus sapiens“. And that’s narrative text, not reported speech…
[3] It’s both pseudo-Victorian steampunk and alternate history. Of course it has to have zeppelins. It would have been really quite surprising if it didn’t.
[4] One Ulysses Quicksilver, and the protagonist of this novel. The only distinguishing features that have stuck in my mind are that he learnt generic Eastern martial arts in a generic Eastern monastery, and that he wears a chartreuse and crimson waistcoat. I would really rather not have known these things.

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