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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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.

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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.

 

Raising Steam

Raising Steam

Raising SteamAuthor: Terry Pratchett
Release: October 28, 2014
Series: Discworld
Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy | Humor
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 365
Publisher: Doubleday
Buy it here: AMAZON

Blurb

Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork – Discworld’s first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.
To the consternation of the patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork – a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all of the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it’s soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear.

Moist von Lipwig is not a man who enjoys hard work – as master of the Post Office, the Mint and the Royal Bank his input is, of course, vital . . . but largely dependent on words, which are fortunately not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. However, he does enjoy being alive, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse . . .

Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mister Simnel, the man wi’ t’flat cap and sliding rule who has an interesting arrangement with the sine and cosine. Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all going off the rails . . .

Review

I purchased this novel in 2014 but did not read it until last month. This was not because I did not have the time—I always make time in my schedule for Sir Terry Pratchett and Discworld novels—but because I knew I would love it. I know this sounds strange so let me explain . . .

I have been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s work ever since college. I majored in English and was reading massive amounts of Victorian era novels, Elizabethan era plays, literary criticism of said works, and writing papers about all of it. Although I enjoyed it, I liked to take a break from reading “schoolwork” and read science fiction and fantasy. (Only people who love books truly understand reading something “fun” to take a break from other reading.) It was during this time that I first encountered Good Omens, by a friend who decided that I “needed” to read it. (She was right.)

After that I read everything by Pratchett (and his co-author for Good Omens, Neil Gaiman) that I could find. Discworld is still my favorite out of Pratchett’s series, and up until Raising Steam I read them as soon as I purchased them. But I held back . . . even though it’s the story of how the railway comes to the Discworld, a fictional world that evolved over 41 books from a rural, agrarian sword-and-sorcery type world with Elizabethan era influences to a pre-industrial Victorian era setting which was missing only the advent of the ingenious mechanical devices to make it a steampunk playground.

I held back from reading it . . . because it would probably be the last chapter of the story. In 2007, just years before he was granted a knighthood for services to literature, Terry Pratchett announced he had been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Despite this he continued to write. Raising Steam is the last adult novel set in the Discworld universe. In 2015, The Shepherd’s Crown, the last volume in his Young Adult Discworld series, was published posthumously: It was not complete at the time of his death. So Raising Steam is the last full work ever to be published in the series and, having read all of the novels except for The Shepherd’s Crown, it does seem to be in part a farewell to many of the characters of Discworld.

Spoiler’s Ahead

It is important to stress the fact that you do not need to have read any of the Discworld novels in order to enjoy Raising Steam. It is the only book in the series that can be considered steampunk, but if you enjoy a neo-Victorian fantasy setting of the grittier-sort, the books set in the town of Ankh-Morpork may peak your interest.

Pratchett focuses the narrative on two fronts—the creation and development of the railway in the Discworld’s major city-state, Ankh-Morpork, and the attack on inter-species progress by dissident dwarf groups.

The railway is developed first by Dick Simnel, the son of Ned Simnel who was featured in a previous Discworld novel, Reaper Man. Ned had created the Disc’s first steam-powered combine harvester, but died in an explosion. Dick was determined to learn from his father’s mistakes and worked with steam-powered machines until he created Iron Girder, the Disc’s first steam locomotive:

“You learn by your mistakes, if you’re lucky, and I tried to make mistakes just to see ‘ow that could be done, and although this is not the time to say it, you ‘ave to be clever and you ‘ave to be ‘umble in the face of such power. You have to think of every little detail. You have to make notes and educate yourself and then, only then, steam becomes your friend.”

Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has the opportunity to stop the advent of the railway. He explains this to Moist Von Lipwig, the reformed conman who Vetinari employs to run such notable city institutions as the Post Office, Royal Mint, and Royal Bank:

“Some might say that it would have been easy for me to prevent this happening. A stiletto sliding quietly here, a potion dropped into a wineglass there, many problems solved at one stroke. Diplomacy, as it were, on the sharp end, regrettably unfortunate, of course, but not subject to argument.”

But Vetinari refuses to do so. He has worked over the course of the series to make Ankh-Morpork into a strangely benevolent dictatorship—one that encourages diversity and new technology that is beneficial to society.

“Mister Lipwig, I feel the pressure of the future and in this turning world must either kill it or become its master. I have a nose for these things, just as I had for you, Mister Lipwig. And so I intend to be like the people of Fourecks and surf the future. Giving it a little tweak here and there has always worked for me and my instincts are telling me that this wretched rail way, which appears to be a problem, might just prove to be a remarkable solution.”

The game is afoot after the railway receives Ventinari’s support. Simnel joins forces with a wealthy and influential member of Ankh-Morpork society, Mr. Harry King, and Moist finds himself not only negotiating for land rights for the railway but also working to develop the entire enterprise: Food, hotels, shopping centers, platforms—all of these aspects must be considered, and they are given the Discworld twist. Some of the dishes that are prepared for railway travelers, like Primal Soup, even sound quite tasty by our standards, and some, like Rat-Onna-Stick, do not (even if the rat is battered and fried).

But progress is not embraced by everyone, as Vetinari mentioned. Clacks-towers, which are Discworld’s answer to telegraph lines, are the first target of the dissident dwarves until they perceive the threat that the railway offers to their plan of overthrowing the Low King (the title for the ruler of the Dwarves.) The clacks-towers can only send messages; the railway has the ability to connect people everywhere. Some of the dwarves are up in arms against the modernization of the society, and people are being injured, and killed, in the battles.

It is interesting to note that Vetinari, who is a tyrant by his own words, believes that everyone is equal. There is no slavery in Ankh-Morpork; everyone—human, dwarf, troll, vampire, golem, goblin, and other assorted races—only answered to the law.

In Ankh-Morpork you can be whoever you want to be and sometimes people laugh and sometimes they clap, and mostly and beautifully, they don’t really care.

But this is not true of the entire Disc—and this is where the railway is headed. It is up to our heroes to make certain that the enterprise of steam is not derailed.

Raising Steam is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of the Discworld series, and I think it is a must-read for anyone who loves steampunk as well. It is a wonderful story full of twists and turns, humor, adventure, magic, neo-Victorian imagery, and, of course, the steam technology fans of the genre love so well. I will let Terry Pratchett have the last word with a short description of the main steam locomotive in the story, Iron Girder, and the beauty of her departure as the railway heads out across the Disc and into whatever the future has in store:

And the driver made his magic and the firebox opened and spilled dancing red shadows all around the footplate. And then came the rattle and jerk as Iron Girder took the strain and breathed steam for one more turn around the track as the goblins whooped and cackled and scrambled up her sides. And then came the first chuff and the second chuff and then the chuff bucket overflowed as Iron Girder escaped the pull of friction and gravity and flew along the rails.

Book Review: The Earl and the Artificer

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Conceptual Artwork by Chris Pavesic. Photo Credits: Dreamstime and Chris Pavesic.

Author: Kara Jorgensen
Release: January 30, 2016
Series: The Ingenious Mechanical Devices
Genre: Steampunk | Mystery
Edition: Kindle
Pages: 302
Publisher: Fox Collie Publishing
Buy it here: Amazon

 

Blurb

What mysteries lay buried beneath weeds and dust?

Following their wedding, Eilian and Hadley Sorrell journey to Brasshurst Hall, his family’s abandoned ancestral home. As Eilian struggles to reconcile his new roles as husband and earl, he finds the house and the surrounding town of Folkesbury are not as they first appear.

Behind a mask of good manners and gentle breeding lurks a darker side of Folkesbury. As the Sorrells struggle to fit in with the village’s genteel society, they find their new friends are at the mercy of Randall Nash, a man who collects secrets.

Soon, Eilian and Hadley become entangled in a web of murder, theft, and intrigue that they may never escape, with the manor at the heart of it all. Something long thought lost and buried within Brasshurst’s history has been found—something worth killing for.

Review

For my first post on the Steampunk Cavaliers I wanted to review an author whose work I know I enjoy. As with any genre, steampunk novels vary in quality and in style. Finding an author whose work you enjoy, whose story worlds you like to visit again and again, is something to be treasured and shared.

The first time I read one of Jorgensen’s Ingenious Mechanical Devices novels, The Winter Garden, my area was under a tornado warning. The TV was on in the background spouting alerts and I started reading on my iPad to keep my mind off the storm. The fact that it held my attention speaks volumes.

Jorgensen’s new novel, The Earl and the Artificer, is book three in her Ingenious Mechanical Devices series, but works just as well as a stand-alone novel. The novel continues the story of the two main characters, Eilian and Hadley, from Earl of Brass. The characters have married and moved on with their lives as the new Earl and Countess of Dorset, but their personalities remain on track. It is not too big of a spoiler to tell you that the first chapter opens with Hadley elbow-deep in steamer engine innards, covered in grease, trying to fix their burned-out vehicle:

Leaning into the front of the cab, she brought her face close to the boiler as the heat of the kettle stung her cheeks. The metal coils of the heating element had melted into a blackened cake that smelled of burnt hair. Using the sides of the hood for leverage, she pivoted back until her satin boots met the road’s white gravel. Staring down at her cream dress, already streaked with soot and grease, she sighed and wiped her hands across it before smoothing a lock of henna hair behind her ear.

Of course her new white dress becomes filthy and in this state she has to meet their new neighbors and their cousin, Randall Nash, who seems to judge her appearance rather harshly.

Both Eilian and Hadley are having a hard time adjusting to so many changes in their lives, and part of the novel revolves around the new dimensions in their relationship as husband and wife and, of course, setting up their household in a Gothic-style mansion reminiscent of the BBC’s Downton Abbey. Add to this a mixture of steampunk devices and somewhat magical-seeming elements that are not simply thrown-in for effect but are actually integral to the story.

There is a treasure at Brasshurst Hall hidden in the ruins, but to discover it Eilian and Hadley have to brave physical threats and overcome the emotional debris of his tragic family history.  Suspense builds as the story continues, as does the sense of impeding danger.  Without giving away too much, I will just say that the resolution will not be something most readers will expect, but it fits perfectly with the story world and the characters.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.42.15 AMI recommend The Earl and the Artificer for anyone who enjoys a Victorian-style steampunk novel filled with intriguing characters, mystery, suspense, and danger.