Tag Archives: Steampunk

Review: The Victorian House

The Victorian House
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.

This is not a book for people who are already knowledgeable on the topic of domestic daily life during the Victorian age in England. Flanders does, however, manage to combine an informative overview with a considerable degree of entertainment value – especially if you read the footnotes, were most of the humour is.

I read this as research for my novel (which will be finished within the next year or so). My novel is set in a Victorianesque world, and this book was excellent for background. Flanders does not get bogged down in detail, but she does manage to get the ‘feel’ of the period very well indeed. One thing that particularly struck me is the sheer filthiness of the cities (particularly London, as the largest city) – Flanders does not just say “it was filthy” but demonstrates by discussing little adjustments people had to make, like not putting out a white tablecloth until a short time before the meal, or it would go grey. This level of atmospheric pollution is something that we just don’t have to deal with in the UK any more, so it’s hard to imagine without the examples Flanders gives.

Another interesting area is the illustration of how limited many middle-class women’s lives were – again, something that we find it difficult to appreciate from our twenty-first century standpoint. We might intellectually know that the Victorian period was probably the one in English history where women’s rights and status in society reached their lowest ebb, but Flanders provides illustrative facts, including that since women were supposed to spend their lives catering to their families (particularly the men), pretty much the only way for a woman to get some time to herself was to be ill – which provided a cast-iron excuse for retiring to one’s bedroom and closing the door. It provides an interesting alternative viewpoint on the fragile Victorian lady – women’s health was generally poorer than men’s because of their poorer diet and lack of fresh air and exercise, but being a professional invalid definitely had its attractions for any woman who wanted to escape the endless round of service to others. This was something I hadn’t even considered before, and it’s the sort of thing that shines a light from a different angle and makes everything suddenly look different. One example Flanders gives is Florence Nightingale, who spent many years as an invalid – but managed to drive huge changes in public health by writing from her bedroom. Would she have been able to do that work if she had – as society expected of a woman – either got married and spent her life looking after the husband and kids, or moved in with a relative to act as an unpaid housekeeper?

This kind of little detail often gets missed from the big histories, and it’s vital for anyone who wants to reproduce the world (or something like it) because it is important for how people lived in their day-to-day lives. Writing big plot events pushes the story along, but writing the background detail makes it feel real.

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Review: The Faraday Cage

The Faraday Cage
The Faraday Cage by Steve Turnbull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an anthology of five stories set in the same steampunk universe, in which the Faraday effect is used to nullify gravity, thus allowing both air-breathing flight and spaceflight. There are also colonies on Venus and Mars and several space stations.

The existence of the colony on Venus requires (given what we now know about Venus) a degree more suspension of disbelief than is usual as we have to ignore what we know to be true: that Venus has a mean surface temperature of 462 degrees C, and atmospheric pressure at the surface 92 times greater than earth, making human colonisation highly unlikely. However, the steampunk genre leans heavily on the legacy of Victorian science fiction writers, in which trips to Venus feature regularly (Voyage to Venus, Journey to Venus, A Trip to Venus etc), so this is forgivable.

The Haemophage
On a mining base in the asteroid belt, people start dying by having their blood sucked out. The main character, the station’s security chief, must solve the murders – his job made more difficult (or not?) by the arrival of a mysterious woman. I particularly liked the setting of this one, and would like to read more about the main characters, both of whom were more interesting than could be properly explored in the word count allowed. The murders were rather slow to appear and the resolution was rather quick, but still a very enjoyable story – admirably fitted, I think, to being the prequel to a full-length novel. Hint, hint.

Taking the Cure
The main character, a young ensign on his first deployment, is faced with a bigger problem than any ensign should have to cope with. This was one of my two favourites in the book. It’s the kind of story where the impact doesn’t really hit you until about half an hour after you’ve finished reading it. Then you realise that the motives of one of the characters could be read in two entirely different ways – putting a completely different spin on the ending. Very, very good. This, I think, is going to stay with me for a while.

Iron Curtain
My other favourite. The main character, not a military type like his brothers, goes to Russia to build a “Faraday Floor” for the Czar’s family. This is the story of a young man whose unaggressive attitude is a disappointment to his family, but who is determined to make his own way and earn enough money to marry the woman he loves. The relationship between the two young people was done well, and the ending was just right, I think. It didn’t have quite the delayed impact of Taking the Cure but it had a depth that ensures it stays with you.

Dear Prudence
Girl meets boy. Misunderstandings ensue. Etc. My least-favourite story in the anthology. I thought the two young lovers were each equally wet and annoying (but the dog was quite amusing). Luckily, the rest of the anthology makes up for it. This is also the only story that had virtually no steampunk element. Although airships and a couple of gadgets were mentioned, they were not important to the story and could have been removed without much trouble. In fact, it occurs to me that the reverse could equally have happened: the steampunk bits added afterwards, to make a standard historical romance fit into a steampunk anthology.

The Computationer
Gilda Dettwiler needs a Babbage Analytical engine. An air-plane which crashed within a few miles of her home probably has one on board; if she can salvage it, it might solve several of her and her family’s problems. This one is a straightforward Boys’ Own (or maybe Girls’ Own!) adventure, with dangers both human and natural, and unexpected allies. A quick, enjoyable read, and a good one to round off the anthology, ending it on a high note.

Overall, a solid four stars. A seriously recommended read if you like your steampunk with a bit of depth to it – particularly Taking the Cure and Iron Curtain.

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Review: The Custodian of Marvels

The Custodian of Marvels
The Custodian of Marvels by Rod Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fitting end to an excellent trilogy – except that it’s apparently not a trilogy and not the end (says the author! – hooray!). I think it is the best book of the three by a considerable margin – not to say that the others weren’t good, because they were. This one was just so good that I ended up not doing anything I had planned to do, in favour of carrying on reading.

This is essentially a heist book: Elizabeth Barnabus is persuaded to join a gang intending to break into, and steal from, the International Patent Office. It’s known that the IPO keeps examples of “unseemly science” that it deems not conducive to the good of the common man. If some of those marvels could be stolen, the thieves might live very comfortably on the proceeds.

Or the IPO itself might be destroyed…

There is a great deal of action here; for the first time, Elizabeth is taking the initiative – and I think that’s intentional on the part of the author. Elizabeth has spent two books running away – now she can’t run any further, and she can’t hide. The time has come to stand, and to fight back. Which she does.

This book includes many things that I enjoy: intellectual property law; clocks; locks; filing systems. But what I liked the most, I think, were the interactions between Elizabeth and the other gang members, each of whom had their own motivation for joining the heist. They are all real people, with lives outside the book, which have led them to take part such a dangerous plan.

The heist itself does not go as planned (obviously) but what is discovered, and what is left hidden, bring the story to a very interesting end. I find myself wondering whether Duncan intends to leave it there – which he could very well do – or continue it on (now I know he intends to continue – excellent!). There are certainly enough loose ends to support further books in the sequels – but to leave it there would also be satisfying, in a way. Life is not neat and tidy. Most people’s real life stories do not end in such a way, to allow the book to be closed with the knowledge that nothing interesting ever happens to that person again.

But I wonder: what happens when you think that your choice is between death and victory, but you turn out to be wrong? And how do you define victory?

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Review: Unseemly Science

Unseemly Science
Unseemly Science by Rod Duncan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unusually for a second book in the series, I think this one was even better than the first.

Elizabeth Barnabus is living a double life, both as herself and as her male twin. The events of Book 1 are still having an effect – although Elizabeth now owns her boat free and clear, she has also come to the negative attention of the authorities…

Unseemly Science follows Elizabeth as she attempts to solve a mystery relating to the ice farmers (an excellent concept!) and avoid legal threats to her liberty at the same time. And somebody seems to be following her…

And why is the Patent Office so interested in the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook anyway?

One might also ask why the young Patent Office official from the previous book seems so interested in Elizabeth personally, but one would probably get a pitying look if one did. I look forward to seeing how that one plays out…

One thing I like about this trilogy is that Elizabeth is very much not in control of events. Even when she thinks she is, things have a habit of turning around on her. She is almost powerless in the face of her enemies, and much of the time, pretty much all she can do is dodge one bullet at a time. She knows she is in danger, and this gives the books what I think is a realistic feeling of threat: this is not the kind of book where the underdog suddenly develops amazing powers of strategy and a host of allies to take her from being at the bottom of the pile to being a series threat to the powers-that-be. Elizabeth is not a threat: she is continually one step away from getting squashed flat. However, she has something that powerful people want – but what is it?

I shall now go and acquire the next book in the series – The Custodian of Marvels – to see how the trilogy plays out.

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Review: The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey

The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey
The Derring-Do Club and the Invasion of the Grey by David Wake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Earnestine, Georgina and Charlotte are back for their third definitely-not-an-adventure (although each book stands alone, so you don’t necessarily have to read them in order if you don’t want to).

This time, it’s strange lights in the sky, little grey men in the kitchen, and the devil in the village. Also, spies. And kidnapping. And pirates. And worse things, like spelling and grammar. Once more, the British Empire (or the whole of civilisation, even) is at risk, and only the Derring-Do Club can save the day, the Empire, and possibly all of civilisation.

My favourite sister is still Georgina; although she’s the quietest one, and the only sister who really doesn’t like adventures (no matter what Earnestine says), I think she is in some ways the strongest of the three. No matter what life (or the author) does to her, or expects of her, Georgina does what’s right. Plus, she’s the scientist of the trio: very cool.

I’ve said it before, and will doubtless say it again: these books are fun romps. Well-written, fast-paced, and dangerously addictive – but with some extra thinking in there, too, should you choose to read it that way.

Once more, David Wake has demonstrated his ability to tell a story that is even more satisfying than you think it will be going in (even with the high expectations I now have of him!) and I’m looking forward to the next book – a little snippet of which is included at the end of the kindle edition of this one.

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The Asylum

At the Asylum, Lincoln 2015

At the Asylum, Lincoln 2015

Not that kind of asylum; the men in white coats haven’t come to take me away. Yet.

It is, apparently, the biggest steampunk festival in Europe, and I could well believe it. My husband and I went; it was our first steampunk event, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. In fact, we booked a decent hotel and only two days (rather than the full four-day event) so that we would have somewhere comfortable to hide if we wanted to, and we also wouldn’t have wasted too much money if we turned out to hate it.

So, we dug out the most steampunkish clothes we had out of our respective wardrobes, and off we went.

Luckily, it all went very well. Nobody died. Nothing blew up. We missed the tea duelling, but I did manage to ask someone what it was, so that’s one of the big questions out of the way.

We didn’t hate it. We met lots of lovely people, and saw some interesting things. There was one particular sort of sculpture thing which we saw in the makers’ tent, made out of some silver forks, some more metal, cogs and springs, and an acrylic ball. This description doesn’t do it justice. It was fascinating and beautiful, and I stared at it for quite a long time. It’s one of those things that you can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that went into it, and sincerely admire it, without in any way wanting it in your house. If I had to live with it, I think I’d always be wondering what it was planning.

Then there was the talk on Anarchists (just in case any of us had not already figured out how to make a simple bomb, that potential lacuna was filled in), and the one on ray guns. I have to admit, the star of my weekend, though, was the airship designer. His name wasn’t on the programme, and although we were told what it was at the beginning of the talk, I didn’t catch it.

Airships are a staple of steampunk fiction, and it seems as though you can hardly have steampunk without at least one dirigible floating majestically across the sky. But the Age of the Airship  (in reality) ended with the loss of the R101 in 1930 and then, the final nail the coffin, the Hindenburg in 1937. The speaker gave us a potted history of the development of lighter-than-air flight, and a run-down of modern airship development. Airships are, apparently, too large, too slow, too uneconomical and too unreliable to be used for passenger or cargo transport – but there are niches where they can play to their strengths, such as the ability to stay in one place for a long time doing not a lot, or the ability to stay up in the air for a long time without refuelling. These niches are advertising (obviously), surveillance and reconnaissance, and delivering scientists and their supplies to remote areas. There is also a potential for development of, basically, flying wind turbines – a cross between a kite, a balloon, and a windmill. While this might be a bit doom-and-gloom for anyone who hankers after the glory days, from a writing perspective, it was very useful. After all, if you’re going to write about something, you really need to know how it works in order to avoid making embarrassing mistakes – and also to take advantage of any useful features that might supply Plot. The advantage of talking to a real airship designer was finding out things that you might otherwise not, unless you deliberately went looking, like why they’re so huge (the bigger they are, the more efficient they are – it’s to do with the volume of gas), and that you can’t run an airship with a couple of blokes. You need a ground crew. Apparently the really big passenger ships needed a ground crew of two hundred. So, brilliant talk. I learned things; a definite win.

Interestingly, there were several talks of interest to budding writers, of which the steampunk crowd seems to be full. It was good to talk to people – R. B. Harkess, David Wake, and Steve Turnbull – who’ve been there, done that, and come back to report. Mostly, they reported that traditional publishing was practically impossible to get into, and self-publishing was not a cake-walk (not news, if you spend much time on the internet looking), and I gained some useful advice on how to do it right. Writing the thing is the easy part; then you have to do formatting and marketing, and that really sorts the men from the boys.

So, a successful weekend, with new things learned (always good), and hopefully some new friends made. And next year, hopefully we’ll make it to the ballroom dancing classes (my husband will have bought some steel-toe-capped shoes by then) and the tea duelling.


Review: Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad

Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad
Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad by Lillias Campbell Davidson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended for: anyone who wants some contemporary background on travelling culture of ladies of the middle- and upper-classes during the last decade or two of the nineteenth century

The original edition of Hints to Lady Travellers was written by Lillias Campbell Davidson, and published in 1889. This was about the time when ladies travelling alone had mostly ceased to be shocking; this is a handbook for the lady who wishes to travel (even to such wild, remote places as Wales or Scotland) but isn’t quite sure how to go about it, what she should take with her (or not), and what she might might encounter on her travels. It is therefore for the ‘ordinary’ lady traveller – not the adventurous explorer intending to journey to Patagonia or China. This edition, however, does have quotes from the writing of such adventurous lady explorers and travellers as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Hindustan – lots of turbans, not many stockings); Mary H. Kingsley (West Africa – husband considered necessary equipment for traversing rapids); Lady Florence Caroline Dixie (Patagonia – take a sheath knife and a revolver; mules are more useful than horses).

Some of the advice is now completely outdated, such as the advice, in case of emergency, to leave a member of the “stronger sex” [i.e., a man] to manage matters “without the hampering interference of feminine physical weakness.” Or the advice that, when travelling by steamer, it’s useless to have one’s maid travel third class while one travels first. One should either dispense with the maid entirely, or defy convention by upgrading her to first class.

On the other hand, some of the advice has definitely stood the test of time, such as the advice, on taking a room or apartment, to note any damage to the room or fittings and bring it to the attention of the landlady in order to avoid being charged for damage that was already there (the authors states that she knows of “one bedroom carpet, stained by the overflow of a bath two years ago, which has since been charged to the account of, and paid for by, some ten or twelve consecutive occupants of that self-same room.”

This book is fascinating, though, because it’s a window into a world which no longer exists. A world where travelling by railway (or by tricycle) could be an exciting and somewhat scary adventure, and where rival railway companies, if they were quarrelling, might deliberately act to make passengers miss their connections. It’s also a world where, although women were starting to move beyond the confines of the home, they still saw themselves as fundamentally weaker than, less capable than, and in many respects inferior to, men.

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Clockwork Angels


Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels book cover. Authors: Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart.

Clockwork Angels is the companion book to the new Rush album of the same name. It’s a steampunk fantasy describing a young man’s dissatisfaction with his safe, ordered life in the Watchmaker’s precisely ordered realm (even the rain arrives on time) and his embarkation on an impulsive adventure that rapidly spirals out of control. Through the book, the hero – Owen Hardy – changes from a naive boy to a young man.

However, if you are expecting complex plotting and multi-layered characters, you will not find them. Clockwork Angels is an allegory; Owen’s physical journey represents his (and everyone’s) journey to maturity, with the inevitable disillusionments and discoveries along the way. As you travel with him, you get to think about the virtue of balance, and the fact that extremes of either order or chaos can be equally undesirable; the nature of life and death; the purpose of imagination; and freedom – the freedom to choose, and the freedom to fail; and more. Some of these concepts occur as themes throughout the book (such as freedom) and others as vignettes covered only in one scene or part of a scene.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy or French literature will recognise a strong resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide; in some ways, Clockwork Angels might be regarded as a retelling of Candide for a modern audience; the authors – for I include Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer – say in an afterword that Candide ‘was an early model for the story arc’. For Rush fans, there are also plenty of references to Rush’s previous work.

So in conclusion, you can read this just as a steampunk fantasy and enjoy it, but by doing so I think you would miss out on the best bits. Read it slowly, and allocate it the brain space and time for some good thinking. You’ll be glad you did.