This month I’d actually like to review a book I read several months ago, Cog and the Steel Tower. The lovely W.E. Larson sent me a free copy in exchange for my honest review, and after several months of thought, I’m ready to share that review with the world.
Let’s start with the blurb!
Thirteen-year-old Cog loved getting her hands greasy in her Uncle’s workshop and building the occasional mud-cannon before the return of her mother knocked her life completely off its rails. Before long she’s stowing away on a royal airship and tricking her way into a dream apprenticeship with the Queen’s master engineer by pretending to be a boy. But her situation takes a dangerous turn when she discovers a plot to assassinate the Queen and throw the kingdom into war.
If she can keep her identity a secret despite her best friend developing a crush on her alter ego, unravel the deadly conspiracy, and keep the demanding master engineer happy, then maybe she can have the future she’s always wanted. Keeping hidden identities and saving kingdoms may not be the same as fixing a steam wagon or an auto-mechanical potion mixer, but Cog has a set of precision screwdrivers and she isn’t afraid to use them.
Follow Cog’s rollicking adventure as she uses her wits and ingenuity to find friendship, trust, and justice in a colorful but sometimes unforgiving steampunk world full of mechanical mayhem.
Cog and the Steel Tower features several of my favourite steampunk tropes: the tomboyish girl tinkerer, the young woman who wants to avoid arranged marriage at all costs, airship stowaways, and educational apprenticeships that serve as the perfect way to show off all the steampunk-y goodness in the author’s world.
All of these tropes combined to make Cog and the Steel Tower a fun, often rambunctious adventure. If you’re looking for a light read to take your mind off all the awfulness in the world, Cog and the Steel Tower is perfect.
That said, I personally found Cog and the Steel Tower disappointing. Its use of archetypes and familiar tropes was brilliant, but it missed several opportunities to deeply explore and challenge those tropes. Cog herself–and, we later find out, the Queen–challenges the awful restrictions on women, but fails to actually create change. She becomes an exception, rather than a reason for a new rule.
I’ve written before about how I long to see more punk in steampunk, and Cog and the Steel Tower was very much the opposite. Cog did rig up awesome devices from found parts in a very punk way, but that was about it. Her only reason to challenge or even question the strict gender and class rules of her world was because she personally wanted to be an engineer and wasn’t allowed. And the Queen, who challenged gender norms to get into her position, has failed to champion other women’s rights.
This is at least partially because Cog and the Steel Tower is middle grade, and people assume kids aren’t interested in the deeper political realities of Victorian-based worlds. I think this does a massive disservice to kids, who are quite capable of understanding and tackling those challenges. It assumes they can’t think deeper rather than encouraging them to develop those thinking skills. And I think we need to do better by our kids.
But it does also bring up another problem I’ve had recently: virtually all the steampunk I’ve found has either been middle grade or YA. Where are all the adult protagonists? Specifically, where are all the adult woman who have already–and permanently–rejected their roles in their society and built new ones? Are we to assume that all these badass little girls grow up to be perfect Victorian women? Based on the lack of badass woman role models in these books, I’m pretty sure those are the assumptions.
So, my review in one sentence: Cog and the Steel Tower was a lot of fun, but it brought my biggest issues with the steampunk genre as a whole to the forefront in a big way. To be honest, it’s kind of put me off the genre for a little while. But I know steampunk can do much better, and I’m excited to find stories that break the mold.
Does Cog and the Steel Tower sound awesome to you? Do you know any steampunk books that really challenge the tropes I talk about here? Please let me know in the comments section below!