Fallen London: A Neo-Victorian Steampunk LitRPG

Review by Chris Pavesic

Fallen London
Producer: Failbetter Games
Genre: Steampunk | LitRPG | Lovecraftian | Gothic
Edition: IOS Platform
Download for Free Here: Fallen London

Blurb

“Thirty years ago, London was stolen by bats. Now, Hell is close and immortality is cheap, but the screaming has largely stopped…”
Fallen London, acclaimed literary RPG and winner of The Escapist’s Best Browser Game 2009, has been reimagined for iPhone!

Welcome to a dark and hilarious Victorian-Gothic underworld, where every choice has a consequence from the style of your hat to the price of your soul.

For those who love to read and for those who love to play, Fallen London offers you a unique narrative that evolves with every choice you make. Define your destiny through the stories you embark on and the character you cultivate.

There’s a whole world of opportunity waiting for you beyond the iron bars of New Newgate Prison. Who are you going to be?
Spoilers Ahead

Welcome Delicious Friend!

For me, it is hard not to like a game whose interface (a sort of shadowy top hat-like creature with squinty eyes and fangs) implies it wants to eat you from the first moments in the game.

The story world is a nightmare version of Victorian London, where Lovecraftian-like creatures roam the streets along with urchins, thieves, aristocrats, and other gothic monstrosities. After choosing your character, you begin in New Newgate Prison with rather sparse furnishings—basically a straw mattress–and stone walls dripping with moisture. The quest name—Unjustly Imprisoned!—sets up the fact that you are innocent of the charges that landed you in the cell—or are you? This is Hell, after all. Is anyone located here really innocent?

Not surprisingly, one of the first quests a player needs to complete involves escaping from the prison cell. You then need to find new lodgings, and quickly, because without an address, your character can be arrested and taken back to prison. (This never happened to me, but it is a warning in the game.)

As a player levels up, the type of lodging offering improves. And the types of quests, and NPCs (non-player characters), your character can interact with differs with each choice you make. The top-tier housing reminds me the most of steampunk living, especially the unusual steam-driven gadgets that fill the Brass Embassy (the place where all the best demons vacation). Something has to keep the brass ballroom floor in molten form, after all. But there are steampunk-style lodgings in most levels, including a decommissioned steamer and a cottage near a strange inventor’s observatory.

The lodgings reflect all of the literary genres reflected in the game. Lovecraft’s influence can be found in the Marsh Lair, the Once-Great Marsh House, the Deep Cellars of Old Newgate, and the Dripstone-Snared Third City Sub-Temple. The Abandoned Family Crypt, Attic Room, and Half-Abandoned Mansion are straight out of Gothic-style novels.

The characters that a player interacts with in this world also will seem familiar to those who enjoy steampunk, Lovecraft, and neo-Victorian novels. Depending upon what path a character follows, you will run into versions of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Sigmund Freud. Jack the Ripper has a new moniker in hell—Jack of Smiles—and there are a few Egyptian Pharaohs and Queen Consorts added into the mix. My favorite so far is a Sherlock Holmes character—who has been driven mad by honey (yes—honey) and sends you on quests to locate kidnapped demons.

The quests are interesting and a player’s choices determine what path his/her character takes. It is a wonderful story that unfolds one segment at a time, and not quite in order. You will not know if a segment you completed a week ago is important to the overall story or not, although the game interface offers tantalizing clues.

Review

Over the last few months there has been a discussion amongst The Steampunk Cavaliers about wanting to see more “punk” in the steampunk aesthetic. In fact, fellow site author Dianna Gunn commented:

“What [steampunk authors] forget are all the other things that make the Victorian era such a fascinating one. They skip the political intrigue and religious conflicts inherent in the time. Their characters create inventions and go on grand adventures that change their lives but rarely seem to impact the world around them.” Click here  to read the rest of the article.

Fallen London’s style of gameplay includes the “punk” elements that some steampunk creations seem to miss. Yes—there are the neo-Victorian era conventions that so many of us enjoy, and yet those are tempered with the facts of living in a society that has literally gone to Hell.

Actual Victorian Era London was an unhealthy place. There were outbreaks of cholera. Ten percent of the population lived below subsistence level and about twenty percent had just enough money to survive, provided that they worked every day with no days off. Homes were overcrowded and heated with coal fires, which destroyed the quality of the air.

Fallen London does not gloss over these issues. A character moves through all levels of society, does quests and learns secrets, and interacts with NPCs in a world that, for all of the fantasy elements, seems very realistic. And the characters can make a real impact on their world; it is not just a simple adventure story. It has depth and hidden levels that continue to grow each time you play. The designers put an impressive amount of detail into the game on all levels and it is one that I recommend playing.

 

Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales

Review PhotoGaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales

Release: May 29, 2016
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Humor
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 356
Publisher: eSpec Books

Buy it here: AMAZON

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 4.44.12 PMBlurb

Once Upon a Time, ageless tales were told from one generation to the next, filled with both wonders and warnings. Tales of handsome princes and wicked queens, of good-hearted folk and evil stepmothers. Tales of danger and caution and magic…classics that still echo in our hearts and memories even to this day, told from old, cherished books or from memory at Grandma’s knee.

Oh yes, tales have been told…but never quite like these. Journey with us through the pages of Gaslight and Grimm to discover timeless truths through lenses polished in the age of steam.

With tales by James Chambers, Christine Norris, Bernie Mojzes, Danny Birt, Jean Marie Ward, Jeff Young, Gail Z. and Larry N. Martin, Elaine Corvidae, David Lee Summers, Kelly A. Harmon, Jonah Knight, Diana Bastine, and Jody Lynn Nye.

Review

As a fan of fairy tales, fantasy, and steampunk, this collection grabbed my attention immediately. The first story, “In Wolf’s Clothing,” is a perfect play on the words in the title and reimagines the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. “When Pigs Fly” is the story of the “Three Little Pigs,” only now the “pigs” are captains of airships and the “wolves” are pirate vessels attacking the fleet. There are steampunk versions of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Rapunzel,” and even “Puss in Boots” with clever steampunk inspired titles. “The Steamy Tale of Cinderella” might sound like an adults-only version of the tale until you remember the theme of the collection.

Since space is limited, I have decided to review only one short story in the collection. For a spoiler-free review—if you love any of these three genres, log on to your favorite bookstore and emulate Philip J. Fry from episode 3, season 6 of Futurama. *

Spoiler’s Ahead

It was hard to choose a favorite story in this collection, but I have enjoyed Jody Lynn Nye’s novels for years, so her story “The Perfect Shoes” narrowly edged out the others for the review. I also happen to feel that it is a good representation of the mixture of genres in the collection.

Jody Lynn Nye has written many humorous fantasy series, and has collaborated with Robert Asprin and Piers Anthony, so I started reading “The Perfect Shoes” expecting something clever and light, with perhaps a few puns thrown in for good measure. What I found was something clever and dark, sobering and uplifting, and all-together unsettling. It is a short story that I found myself thinking about long after I read it during quiet, reflective moments. It made an impact.

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 4.32.08 PM
From Wikipedia Commons

The story is not a take on “Cinderella,” as one might think from the reference to shoes, but to “The Red Shoes,” a much darker tale originally published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845. The original tale is based on the idea of temptation and material desire; of being cursed and finding redemption through humility.

“The Perfect Shoes” follows this formula, but with exquisite steampunk details. The shoes, for example, are the creation of a master clockwork maker, M. de Raymond. Instead of being simple adornments, they are fashioned to help the heroine, Monique, fulfill her dream of being the prima ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet:

At her ankles, knees, and hips, there were clockwork joints, gears, and flywheels, but as tiny as those in a fine watch. They would be invisible under her tights. Strangely, the shoes and their attendant gadgetry felt perfectly comfortable, as though they were a part of her body (Nye, 2016).

The shoes allow her to dance beyond her natural ability and she quickly rises to the position of prima ballerina. Monique is willing to trade her soul for her dreams, but M. de Raymond asks for much less. Still, Monique is not willing to keep the bargain she struck. But M. de Raymond does not hold this against her and allows her to keep the shoes and pursue her dreams. Instead, it is her own cruelty to the rest of the dancers and her own pride that bring about her downfall.

Does Monique find redemption at the end of the tale? That would be giving too much away. I recommend reading the tale, and the rest of the collection, for yourself.

*Fry yells: “Shut up and take my money!”
(This, of course, assumes you talk to your computer. Which I do when shopping. Frequently.)

The Mechanicals

Review Photo Author: Nix Whittaker
Release: September 26, 2016
Series: Wyvern Chronicles
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Young Adult
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 152
Publisher: Reshwity
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Hara and Gideon are on a mission for the Emperor of the Wyvern Empire. They are to rescue a reluctant bride who has fallen into the clutches of an ambitious Duke. The Duke has plans to start a civil war and commit genocide of the dragons.

Spoilers Ahead

The Mechanicals is Nix Whittaker’s second book in the Wyvern Series. The first, Blazing Blunderbuss, was published early in 2016. It is not necessary to read the first book in the series to enjoy the novel, but knowledge about the characters and the story world can add a depth to the story, particularly at the start of the novel.

The novel is a unique blend of high fantasy and steampunk adventure. There are dragon/human hybrids, pirates, airships, clockwork dragons, and mechanicals/automata. Hara, the heroine of Blazing Blunderbuss, is a tough, intelligent survivor who has difficulty trusting men because of events that happened during her childhood. She and her airship crew were forced into piracy and now, in The Mechanicals, have to face the repercussions of that choice. The Emperor offers her a way out for the entire crew; help rescue his wife’s niece and avert another war.

Gideon, a dragon/human mix, bonded with Hara in Blazing Blunderbuss to save her life. In effect they are married, but Hara’s lack of trust of any man means their relationship has moved very slowly and has not been consummated. Gideon is also the uncle of the Emperor, but not considered part of the royal family because he never entered into his brother’s collection—an additional grouping that dragons join that further establishes kinship.

The thoughtfulness that Whittaker puts into creating each of her characters is evident in the complexity of their interactions and growth. When they arrive at the Emperor’s court, for example, Hara learns more about Gideon and his relationship with his family. Gideon likes being a “rogue” royal and generally avoids the Emperor’s court; he does not like the fact that many of the courtiers would play up to him simply because he is a human/dragon. And the members of the court would prize Hara’s clockwork dragon, Angel. Still, he does want Hara and her crew to be pardoned, so they answer the Emperor’s call.

“The women will try to steal Gideon and the men will try to steal your other dragon.”

For the first time Hara looked at the women whispering in the corridors as they passed. She looked at Gideon and the look in her eye said one thing. Mine. It warmed him deep in his soul and he offered his arm and she took it.

Gideon said, “You make sure the women don’t steal me and I’ll make sure the men stay away from Angel.”

Hara nodded her head sharply, “You have a deal, dragon.”
(Whittaker, 2016).

Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 3.08.08 PMReview

I recommend Nix Whittaker’s series to anyone who likes YA fantasy/steampunk adventures. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this work, but (as always) I purchased the e-book to write the review. I liked it enough to purchase the first book in the series, so . . . I read them in reverse order. I like to support independent authors whenever possible and whenever I decide that I like a book enough to review it, I put my money behind it. You can read both novels for free if you have Kindle Unlimited, which I received as a gift for Christmas. (My friends and family know me so well!)

 

Dead Magic

Review PhotoAuthor: Kara Jorgensen
Release: November 1, 2016
Series:Ingenious Mechanical Devices
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Mystery
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 306
Publisher: Fox Collie Publishing
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Immanuel wants nothing more than a peaceful life as a scientist, but his happiness is short-lived when his past demons refuse to go quietly. As body-snatching spirits attack and creatures rise from the dead, he fears his sanity is slipping. Burdened with strange new powers, he struggles to hide them from his lover for fear of losing the only person he trusts. But the woman who shares his soul has a secret of her own. Disillusioned with her life, Emmeline turns to a handsome suitor who offers her a world of limitless possibilities at an exclusive club. Rumors swirl of occult rituals and magic, and Emmeline soon fears he wants more than just her love.

Something wicked is heading for London that threatens to destroy everything Emmeline and Immanuel hold dear. And it wants more than secrets . .

Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 11.51.18 PM

Review

Dead Magic is the fourth novel in Jorgensen’s Ingenious Mechanical Devices series and is the second novel to feature the characters of Emmeline and Immanuel. Although Dead Magic is a sequel, it is not necessary to read The Winter Garden first. (Although you absolutely should read all of the novels in this series! They are excellent.) Jorgensen provides enough details in the narrative to catch a reader up to the plot line of the new novel.

In fact, I did not follow my usual practice of rereading the prior book in the series before reviewing (mainly because, like most people, I am pressed for time during November and December), but I was swept up in the story without any difficulty. I gave a copy of this novel to a friend who had not read the prior novel and he was able to enter and enjoy the story world as well. The novel can certainly stand on its own.

Spoiler’s Ahead

For readers who enjoy steampunk and neo-Victorian fiction, there is a lot to appreciate in this novel. Set in an alternate version of Victorian Era England, Jorgensen demonstrates her expansive knowledge of the time period. Indeed, by combining the themes of science and fantasy, the author is reflecting the dominant cultural beliefs of the historical culture.

While many who lived during the 1800’s were obsessed with the developing fields of science and technology, a large number were also obsessed with mysticism and “unseen world” that supposedly existed next to our own. The practice of spiritualism was popular at all levels of society. There was widespread interest despite Christian piety in psychic phenomena and the occult. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms, and published newspapers where photographic evidence of spirits were presented as proof that contact with the unseen world could be documented on film.

Many of the historical spiritualists were revealed as “fakes,” like Madame Nostra in Dead Magic. They used tricks, and even played with the new technology, to convince the gullible public in their powers.

Emmeline rolled her eyes as the others tittered for her to tell them more. One day back on English soil and they were already falling over themselves to be in Madame Nostra’s good graces. Did they not realize she couldn’t actually communicate with spirits? All it took was one reading with her for Emmeline to discover that Madame Nostra’s spirits spoke in knocks that came from her left foot. It didn’t seem right for her of all people to rise to the top, but with Lord Rose dead, Madame Nostra had the biggest name and the loudest mouth (Jorgensen, 2016).

Emmeline and Immanuel actually have abilities beyond the norm. This adds a nice touch to the story world; although based in history, it is indeed “punked” with actual magic.

The main characters develop further in the newest edition to the series. At the start of The Winter Garden, Emmeline is a young, spoiled aristocrat whose main concern is her place in society. Immanuel is a poor, foreign-exchange student at Oxford University who has to face prejudice due to both his nationality and his sexuality. After Immanuel saves her life with magic, he and Emmeline and bound by their souls.

At the start of Dead Magic, Emmeline behaves rather wantonly (for a Victorian Era lady) by encouraging the attentions of Lord Hale, a fellow spiritualist. She is also bemoaning the loss of her position as temporary head of the London Spiritualist Society. Immanuel has obtained a job as a junior curator at the Natural History Museum and lives with his lover, Adam Fenice. He still suffers bouts of post-traumatic disorder from his torture at the hands of Lord Rose, but is improving.

Once again Immanuel is the character that resonates with me the most; he is intelligent and gifted, but an outcast all the same. His romance with Adam is a secret that should not have to be kept and it offers them as much pain as it does solace. When reading this it is not hard to imagine having to live a double-life where you have to censor everything you say because society would object to your relationship.

Emmeline is growing on me, though. I think it is because she is maturing in the story and looks at the world from an adult perspective. She is headstrong, even when it gets her into trouble. She is determined and does not give up, even in the face of danger. And she is loyal to her friends.

Throughout the novel the characters develop as they face and overcome a multitude of obstacles, including those in the magical and the social realms. The pacing of the story is fast, the detail makes it easy to envision the story world, and the steampunk and fantasy elements are interwoven seamlessly.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys steampunk, fantasy, and/or mystery novels.

Other Books in the Series
Other Books in the Series

Upcoming Steampunk Festivals, Symposiums, Conventions, and Expos

As 2016 winds to a close, we can look forward to all of the new travel and event opportunities available for 2017. Although there are many places and festivals anyone interested in steampunk can visit in North America, international interest in this style of speculative fiction/art is growing as well. I have listed a few events/festivals below that have caught my eye, including one in Canada. I hope this helps you plan your future steampunk-related travels!

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 11.57.19 PM
The Emerald City Steampunk Expo

The Emerald City Steampunk Expo

Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview in Wichita, Kansas

November 4-6, 2016

Website: http://www.emeraldcitysteampunkexpo.com/

The expo includes a Doctor Who Viewing Room, a Murder Mystery Theater, a Burlesque and Oddities show, a Cosplay Fashion Show, a Mustache Contest, Concert, and several mini-symposiums.

 

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 12.19.40 AM
The International Steampunk Symposium

The International Steampunk Symposium

Cincinnati, Ohio

April 28-30, 2017

 

Website: http://thepandorasociety.com/symposium/

K.W. Jeter—the author who coined the phrase “steampunk” in 1987—is a featured speaker at this year’s symposium.

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 12.01.13 AM
The Steampunk World’s Fair

The Steampunk World’s Fair

Piscataway, New Jersey

May 5-7, 2017

Website: http://steampunkworldsfair.com/welcome/

Billed as the world’s largest steampunk event. Headlining guests include author Gail Carriger and steampunk band Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band.

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 12.04.45 AM
Steampunk in the Catskills

Steampunk in the Catskills

Blackthorne Resport, East Durham, New York

June 9-11, 2017

Website: http://steampunkcatskills.com/

There are performers, vendors, and a steampunk haunted house listed for the event.

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 12.12.26 AM
Coldwater Steampunk Festival

Coldwater Steampunk Festival

Coldwater Ontario

August 10-12, 2017

Website: http://www.steampunkfestivalcoldwater.com/

The event is listed as Canada’s 150th Steampunk’d Birthday and Inter Arts Festival with a Circus, Art Exhibits, Performers, and Musicians.

Screen Shot 2016-11-01 at 12.14.28 AM
Springfield Steampunk Festival

Springfield Steampunk Festival

Hartness House Inn, Springfield, Vermont

September 15-16, 2017

Website: http://springfieldvtsteampunkfest.com/

The event is set to feature live music and performances.

Please share any information about future steampunk festivals, conventions, or expos in the comments.  We would love to hear about new events!

 

The Tinkerer’s Daughter

Review PhotoAuthor: Jamie Sedgwick
Release: 2011
Series: The Tinkerer’s Daughter trilogy
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | YA
Edition: Kindle and Paperback
Pages: 290
Publisher: Timber Hill Press
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Breeze is an outcast, a half-breed orphan born into a world torn apart by a thousand years of war. Breeze never knew her elven mother, and when her human father is recalled to the war, he leaves her in the safest place he knows: in the care of a reclusive tinker.

The Tinkerman’s inventions are frightening at first -noisy, smelly, dangerous machines with no practical use- but when the war comes home, Breeze sees an opportunity. If she can pull it off, she’ll change the world forever. If she fails, she’ll be considered a traitor by both lands and will be hunted to her death.

Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 3.13.33 PMReview

I purchased this novel through a free offer in Bookbub and I have subsequently purchased the other two novels in the series. I am looking forward to reading them over the holidays—preferably curled up on the couch with a cup of eggnog-flavored latte by my side. This series is a mixture of the fantasy and steampunk genres. It is appropriate for YA readers.

Spoilers Ahead

As a child of four, Breeze’s father leaves her with the Tinkerman. He has been called to fight in a war with the Tal’mar—elf-like creatures that live in the neighboring realm. Breeze is half human and half Tal’mar and is an outcast in both worlds; although she has the build and coloring of a human, she has the ears of a Tal’mar and would be shunned in either kingdom.

Although leery at first when meeting him, there were new and exciting things for Breeze to discover at the Tinkerman’s cottage. This is where the steampunk elements start to come into the storyline.

It was dark inside, until Tinker pulled a metal switch on the wall. A shower of sparks rained down from the ceiling, and a dim light flooded the room. I glanced up at the odd device and saw a glowing coil of metal attached to two thick wires. My father paid little attention to this gadget, but to me it may as well have been magic. I had never seen anything like it. Our small cabin had always been lit by candles and oil-burning lanterns. This was something new, something exciting!
(Sedgwick, 2011).

I enjoyed the description of the Tinkerman’s cottage and barn. There were mazes of books, piles of gadgets, strange devices, and stacks of wood and metal parts scattered everywhere. While Breeze is getting used to these items and learning how to “tinker” and invent from the Tinkerman, she also develops magical abilities from the Tal’mar side of her heritage. She has the ability to connect with the trees, for example, and they communicate with her and help her to travel.

This is an enjoyable story with a positive, upbeat heroine. It is a first person narration that develops as Breeze ages and grows in knowledge and understanding. Yes—bad things happen in the novel, but Breeze focuses on using her natural gifts to improve the situation. For example—after Breeze learns that both humans and Tal’mar would hate and distrust her because of the war, she considers the situation:

How could I have been born into a world so cruel? I’d started out knowing nothing about the world, and had found that the more I knew, the more I hated it. I didn’t like feeling that way. I didn’t like the hopelessness that was gripping me,
the promise of a future full of loneliness and rejection. Then something happened. It was like a switch got flipped in my mind. I’m going to change things, I decided. I’m going to find a way to make them like me. I’m not going to live my whole life like a hermit in the mountains, even if Tinker says I will. Someday I’ll be able to go to town, maybe even live there…
(Sedgwick, 2011).

This is a child’s thought after experiencing the hateful prejudice of the human townspeople, but the core idea never leaves her mind. As she ages, Breeze focuses on ways to change the situation and bring about an end to the war.

Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 6.25.03 PM Breeze was not willing to give up on living in society. After reading a lot of novels with angst-filled heroes/heroines, this was a pleasant departure for me. It reinforced the idea that a person does not have to fundamentally change who he/she is to find a place in society. It is, essentially, a story about staying true to your ideals and beliefs.

The Tinkerer’s Daughter is an enjoyable YA novel. Sedgwick has created an interesting story world that contains an equal amount of steampunk and fantasy aspects. I am anxiously waiting for the holidays so that I have enough time to finish the series.

It Is Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been: George Eliot’s Influence on Modern Alternate Histories

 

Screen Shot 2016-09-03 at 8.37.41 PM
George Eliot

In the steampunk genre there are many Victorian Era authors who have influenced modern works. Many writers espouse names like Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells. Yet another Victorian Era writer, Mary Ann Evans, popularly known by her pen name, George Eliot, created works of fiction that explored the connection between the individual and society and explored the idea that a single decision or action could alter the course of history: This viewpoint has been explored at length by steampunk authors who create story worlds based on alternate histories.

George Eliot wrote in reaction to the dominant ideas of her day—opposing the views that within the historical past lay a panacea for modern Victorian culture and that within the past one could find the best possible moral guide between good and evil. Her views on individualism and society are more modern in perspective and focus on the “here-and-now” rather than the past “glory” of the British Empire. For her, literature was fundamentally tied to her exploration of human nature and the current cultural atmosphere.

As Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth (1985) notes, Eliot focuses on human interactions and cultural understanding. The realm of culture as Eliot conceives it is full of conflicting claims, diverse possibilities, and a bewildering array of evidence that can make it seem a hopeless wilderness to the individual looking for a reliable guide to choice. Because conditions are so diverse, what an individual can do is also diverse. There are alternatives to every choice and to every result, and thus it matters considerably what an individual does. Because people share a common ground in culture, individual action inevitably modifies circumstances in ways that reach far beyond intention with effects that are incalculably diffusive.

In effect, for Eliot, the interaction between the individual and the cultural does provide a sort of give-and-take. The culture affects the individual, but he or she will also affect the culture through the choices that he or she makes throughout life. For example, the “definition” of good and evil can differ from culture to culture and era to era and this precludes a “revelation” about the definition of the terms. What is good for one person is often evil for another; valid ideas can lose influence while tendencies that should be resisted can be mistaken for inevitable laws. If there were a clear right and wrong, based on a single dispensation of human affairs, there would be no need for daring to be wrong. All action could be evaluated according to the law (Ermarth, 1985).

An example of this dual perspective can be seen in the events surrounding the American Revolution, which occurred just prior to the Victorian Era. The British view of this war differed greatly from that of the colonialists (and future Americans). After the French Military threat to the British North American Colonies ended in 1763, the British government felt that the colonies should pay an increased portion of the costs associated with maintaining troops and services. The colonies lacked elected representation to British Parliament and felt that the increased taxes violated their rights. The taxation, while good for England, was seen as evil in the colonies. These two perspectives eventually clashed on the battlefield.

If the British had won the Revolutionary War, would George Washington still be seen as a hero, or considered a villain? How would other figures, such as Charles Cornwallis, William Howe, or Benedict Arnold, be viewed? To quote an old adage—“history is written by the victors.” It is, as Eliot sees it in her novels, a matter of perspective.

Illustration from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1874).
Illustration from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874).

Although Eliot was not the first writer to explore these concepts, she was the most influential writer during the Victorian Era to broach the idea that a single decision or action by an individual could alter the course of history and the alternative possibilities brought about by those potential decisions or actions are just as interesting as the historical record. In fact, it is this concept of the individual’s impact on culture that many modern steampunk writers explore in their novels and short stories set in alternate histories. This type of story can be compelling to read. Instead of history being set in stone, it lets writers (and readers) think about what else could have happened had an alternative choice or action been taken. It is the “what if” question that leads to so many narrative possibilities.

References

Ermarth, E.D. (1985). George Eliot. New York: Twayne.

 

The City of Blind Delight

Review PhotoAuthor: Catherynne M Valente
Release: 2012
Anthology: Other Worlds Than These
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Sci-Fi
Edition: Kindle
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

What if you could not only travel any location in the world, but to any possible world?

A train exists that passes through every city—and every possible city—in the world. Gris, a businessman in the Windy City, unknowingly steps aboard and enters the station for the City of Blind Delight where everyone has what they need to survive, but not necessarily what they want . . .

Major Spoiler’s Ahead

“The City of Blind Delight” is a short story in Other Worlds Than These, an anthology that explores the theme of other worlds and the road not taken. Valente’s story is a wonderful example of the genre. It is one of those stories where there are touches of steampunk, of fantasy, and of sci-fi. Some readers may not feel that it is “strictly” steampunk because it lacks certain elements, such as a setting inspired by Victorian England or the American West. However, I would argue that Valente creates a blended genre that simply has a little more “punk” than “steam.” And really, aren’t both of those words important to the genre?

As an additional warning—there is no way I could review this story without spoilers and do it justice. If you want to be surprised at the ending, skip this until you read the short story.

There is a train which passes through every possible city. It folds the world like an accordioned map, and speeds through the folds like a long white cry, piercing black dots and capital-stars and vast blue bays. Its tracks bound the firmament like bones: wet, humming iron with wriggling runnels of quicksilver slowly replacing the old ash wood planks, and the occasional golden bar to mark a historic intersection, so long past the plaque has weathered to blank (Valente, 2012).

The story begins with a missed connection that almost mirrors a romantic plot: an unnamed woman in black glasses stands on the platform waiting for the train to Blind Delight. But she did not know what she was waiting for or how to recognize the correct train from all the other graffiti-barnacled leviathans. Gris brushes her elbow as he hurries through the doors. She longs to follow him even though it is too late, and wonders why she feels this way.

Gris falls asleep on the train and does not hear the station call, but the train waits for him to wake. He enters Blind Delight, “where the station arches and vestibules are formed by acrobatic dancers, their bodies locked together with laced fingers and toes, stretching in shifts over the glistening track, their faces impassive as angels” (Valente, 2012).
In the city everyone either works for the line, usually as a Station Dancer (a member of the human ceiling) or as a prostitute: As he wanders through the station, Otthild, a woman who works both professions, picks up Gris.

The edges of the railroad curl out into the valley, and drag up a town from the earth, whatever town the Conductor dreams of that day, whatever city the tracks long to see. And so there is a river of brandy, and the lime-tart trees, and roads of bread. The Line brought folk, and they stayed (Valente, 2012).

Blind Delight is a city without need. Cattle that have been roasted brown and glistening wander through the city with knives in their flanks. They contentedly offer their flesh to those who are hungry. The river is filled with a rich brandy. The houses are made of brown cake. The streets are paved in bread. Yet, as Gris jokes about how he would pay for Otthild’s services in “a city without want,” she responds, “no one is without want.” There is a difference between “want” and “need” that he has yet to comprehend.

Otthild tells Gris that her mother was a ticket-taker for the line who went down to the edges of the railroad to find the gold spike laid there at the beginning of time. Her mother laid next to the golden spike and cried for the man who lost his life when laying the gold spike; it was there Otthild was conceived—part human, part clockwork, and part gold:

Her skin opens, soft as cloth, and her bones, and her lungs, peeling back like gift-box tissue. Beneath all this is her heart, and it is golden, gleaming, bright at the bottom of her body. A good part of her blood is gold, too, flowing out from the metallic ventricles. She is terrible, and crisp, and clear, a Jacobean diagram of womanhood, her heart burning, burning, burning golden as God (Valente, 2012).

The people of Blind Delight are collectors, she informs Gris. Since food and shelter are completely fulfilled, what people want is refined. Otthild’s mother wanted to see the gold spike. She wanted a child. When Otthild was born, she polished her daughter’s heart every night before bed. Another woman collects calf’s tails. Otthild collects return train tickets.

Gris gives her his ticket, even though he has no reassurance that he can return home. Otthild tells him:

Maybe they would sell you a new one. Maybe they would let you inside. Maybe not. We are often perverse. Maybe the Station is full of Midwesterners trying to buy a ticket home with everything they own, even flesh, even bone.

Back in Chicago the woman in black glasses steps onto the train . . .

Review

“The City of Blind Delight” is a short story that I highly recommend. It has a unique mixture of steampunk, fantasy, and sci-fi; it is not easy to plug it into a particular genre. It leaves a reader guessing—is Gris dead? Is he in heaven or in hell? Does he sell his chance at redemption (to leave on the train) for one night with Otthild? Or is he making a conscious choice to stay and enjoy what the world has to offer? It is up to the reader to decide.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 11.41.26 PM

The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall

Review Photo

Author: Chris Dolley
Release: 2016
Series: Reeves & Worcester
Genre: Steampunk | Mystery | Humor
Edition: Ebook
Pages: 246
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Buy it here: Book View Cafe

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.29.18 PMBlurb

Wodehouse steampunk version of The Hound of the Baskervilles!

An escaped cannibal, a family curse … and Reginald Worcester turning up on the doorstep. Could things get any worse for the Baskerville-Smythe family?

As the bodies pile up, only a detective with a rare brain – and Reggie’s is so rare it’s positively endangered – can even hope to solve the case.

But… there is the small matter that most of the guests aren’t who they say they are, the main suspect has cloven feet, and a strange mist hangs over great Grimdark Mire.

Luckily the young master has Reeves, his automaton valet, and Emmeline, his suffragette fiancée, on hand to assist.

This novel is the fifth Reeves & Worcester Steampunk mystery and is set a few months after The Aunt Paradox. The first two stories were published in the ebook, What Ho, Automaton! And the first four stories were published in the trade paperback, What Ho, Automata.

 

 Spoiler’s Ahead

The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall begins when Reggie decides to visit his fiancé, Emmeline, who has been shipped off to Baskerville Hall. Her relatives do not approve of their engagement and hope that she will forget about him and agree to marry the heir to the Baskervill-Smythe title. Reggie concocts a plan to visit Baskerville Hall by posing as a long-lost relative named Roderick and convinces Reeves, his steam-powered automaton valet, to go along with the plot.

The family accepts Reggie as one of their own, although the matriarch of the family, Lady Julia, declares him to be an idiot at first sight. It is not long after he arrives that the murders start to occur and Henry, the heir, agrees to let Reggie and Reeves investigate.

This is where the steampunk elements of the story really come into play. The first “murder” at the household concerns an automaton gardener. The family does not consider this to be a “real” crime, and even Reggie has his doubts:

“Is this even a murder?” I asked. “Can a machine be murdered?”

“If that was Reeves under the log pile, you’d call it murder,” said Emmeline.

“That goes without saying,” I said. “No log would go unturned. But, philosophically, would it be murder? Automata can be repaired.”

Reeves coughed. It wasn’t a philosophical cough. “If I may contribute to your musings, sir, I would point out that humans can be reanimated.”

“I don’t think that’s quite the same, Reeves,” I said.

Reeves expression turned distinctly sniffy. I wouldn’t have liked to have met either of his eyebrows in a dark alleyway.

“Would that be because automata are not regarded as having souls, sir?”
(pp. 48-49).

Is it right to treat sentient machines as mere tools? Should reanimated humans have the same rights as those who have not yet died? Who can say for certain whether someone, or some thing, has a soul? Moments of grave, philosophical discussion are interspersed throughout the story, but never become overwhelming. They add a layer of complexity that makes the storyworld interesting.

Although The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is part of a series, it can easily be read as a solo novel. The influence of P.G. Wodehouse (an English humorist) can be seen in the characters of Reggie and Reeves (akin to Bertie and Jeeves). There are also obvious similarities between The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Fans of the mystery genre will recognize elements from other great mystery writers, like Agatha Christie. (Reggie’s mention of “little grey cells” calls to mind the character of Hercule Poirot). But few casual mystery readers will draw a parallel between the novel and the story that is recognized as the first modern detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

For those who are only familiar with Poe as a writer of “spooky” poetry, it will come as a surprise to learn that he invented the conventions many readers equate with the modern detective story, such as a brilliant, though odd, detective, his/her personal friend who serves as narrator, and the final revelation (dénouement) being presented before the reasoning that leads up to it. The murderer in Poe’s story (MAJOR SPOILER) is an orangutan that has escaped from his owner. In a clear parallel, one of the chief suspects (at least in Reggie’s mind) in The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is the household orangutan, Lupin: “Butlers and orangutans—it was usually one or the other that did it” (p. 48).

Did the orangutan commit the murders in Baskerville Hall, or is there something more nefarious afoot? Readers will have to pick up the novel to find out.

Review

The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall is the type of a novel where familiarity with the mystery genre and with the foibles of famous master detectives from other series helps a reader “get” the humor. This familiarity, however, will also make the mystery fairly obvious. This did not negatively affect my enjoyment; I was in the mood for something light and it did not bother me that I was able to guess the outcome based on my knowledge of The Hound of the Baskervilles and other Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot mysteries. In fact I would say this is a positive attribute, because it made me feel pleased with myself as a reader, and perhaps a bit smug.

Still, like watching an episode of Columbo, where the viewer “sees” the murder and then watches how the detective solves the case, it is important to remember that the reader has the advantage. In this case my advantage was in reading so many British murder mysteries over the years that I now expect someone to break into a dénouement at the end of every social gathering. (Hasn’t happened yet—more’s the pity.)

Humor is a genre I would love to see explored more in a steampunk world. Many of the works are serious and thought provoking; moments of laughter, especially slapstick, are few and far between. The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall makes for a fun summer read: the steampunk elements are essential to the story, the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is lively. In addition, fans of the mystery genre should have an enjoyable time seeing their favorite detectives parodied.

 

Clockwork Fairies: A Tor.Com Original

Review Photo
Author: Cat Rambo
Release: February 1, 2011
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 24
Publisher: Tor Books
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Desiree feels the most at home with her clockwork creations, but Claude worries about all this science and Darwinist nonsense—after all, where do clockwork fairies fall in the Great Chain of Being?

Review—with Spoilers

John Barth described Cat Rambo’s writings as “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis. Clockwork Faeries is another entry into this type of world where steampunk and magic exist side-by-side.

Clockworks Faeries is the story of Desiree, a mulatto heiress who grew up in Rambo’s reimagined Victorian Era England ostracized from upper class London society simply because of the color of her skin. It is told through the point of view of Claude, her fiancé, who is a traditional English gentleman, Oxford Dean, and stout believer in the religious dictates of the Church of England.
What makes Rambo a masterful writer is her use of conversation, interior monologue, and immediate events to describe the world in which Desiree lives. There are no long passages of exposition; the readers see the world through the eyes of Claude, mostly at the same time that he experiences it. (Some immediate events and conversation will trigger a short reminiscence on his part that directly applies to the storyline.)

The story opens with Claude visiting Desiree’s house one Sunday evening and encountering her newest creations:

At first I thought them hummingbirds or large dragonflies. One hung poised before my eyes in a flutter of metallic skin and isinglass wings. Delicate gears spun in the wrist of a pinioned hand holding a needle-sharp sword. Desiree had created another marvel. Clockwork fairies, bee-winged, glittering like tinsel. Who would have dreamed such things, let alone made them real? Only Desiree.
(Rambo, 2011)

Throughout the story Desiree continues her work and builds even more complex creatures. While he marvels at them, Claude also disapproves. He is very much concerned with appearances and the ways that society views both himself and his fiancé. The members of the upper class will not care about her inventions; they will only care about how she dresses, speaks, and behaves at social functions. Throughout the story Claude gives the impression of a weak man who almost blindly follows the values of his society, except for his fascination with Desiree.

This is what makes their love story tragic. Desiree is attracted to Claude because of the way he looks and his position as a Dean at Oxford. Being accepted in a society that made her late mother a near shut-in is important to her, but it hurts when the color of her skin exposes her to stares and outright snubs by others of her class.

Claude finds her beautiful and enjoys her company, but believes she could be so much more: “Dressed properly,” he tells her “you would take the city by storm” (Rambo, 2011). In effect, he is sometimes blind to the reactions of others. “Did you not see Lady Worth turn away lest she contaminate herself by speaking to a Negro? Or perhaps you did not overhear the sporting gentleman laying bets on what I would be like between the sheets?” she asks him after a social gathering (Rambo, 2011). He is shocked that such words would come out of her mouth and does not think to comfort her over the insults she suffered.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 1.55.22 PM
Clockwork Fairies: A Tor.Com Original

Desiree’s father, Lord Southland, actively discourages the marriage because he believes Claude is not intellectual enough for his daughter and believes too much in religion. Claude admits that he is interested in Desiree for her inheritance as well as her beauty, but that is not unusual in the Victorian Era where marriages were arranged more often than not among the upper class based on social position and wealth. Lord Southland does everything in his power to entice Desiree to reject Claude’s offer. But Claude has something his daughter wants: a place in society where she will be accepted. They both want what the other has to offer; even though it is not everything they would wish.

A twist of fate intervenes when Lord Tyndall, an Irish noble and landowner, takes an interest in Desiree’s clockwork designs. Tyndall invites Desiree, her father, and Claude to his estate for a shooting party. Desiree is delighted, for she had enjoyed speaking to Tyndall about her work and wants to see the countryside that inspired her design for the clockwork faeries. Although he feels that Tyndall might have ulterior motives for the invitation, for the man seems entranced by Desiree, Claude agrees to the journey. There, isolated from English society in a castle overlooking the Irish seaside, they are able to look at each other, and their own desire to pursue the marriage, clearly.

I enjoyed Clockwork Faeries a great deal.  Cat Rambo weaves a wonderful tale with settings and characters that I enjoyed.  The steampunk elements are essential to the story and the “touch” of magic in the Irish castle by the sea is not overdone; it adds a sparkle to a story and helps push Claude and Desiree toward a resolution that they may not have otherwise reached.

This is a “recommended read” for anyone who enjoys Neo-Victorian Era Steampunk and Fantasy.