Tag Archives: steampunk

Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1)

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Sir Isaac Newton decided that instead of his usual stroll around the apple orchard one afternoon, he would take a bath and relax. As he soaked away his cares, he watched a bubble of air rising through the water. And had an idea. That led to King William III of England commissioning Capt. William Kidd to lead the first exploration of space to Mars in the 17th century,  which in turn lead to the colonization of the red planet by the British.

In 1812, 16-year-old Arabella Ashby roams the Martian landscape and her father’s khoresh wood plantation. Raised and schooled by a Martian nanny, Arabella is not the proper young English lady her mother had hoped for, so she insists on returning her to London to live properly and respectfully. Not only does Arabella have to get used to the rules and restrictions of early 19th century England, but she also finds earth gravity to be a total b*tch.

Circumstances cause her to flee back to Mars aboard a Mars Trading Company ship, disguised as a boy and serving as both a deckhand and captain’s boy, in an effort to save her brother from an unexpected danger.  Along the way, she encounters war and mutiny and automatons.

This novel started off with a lot of promise of adventure and fun. It ticks off every box on my list: steampunk, Jules Verne-esque, science fiction, space exploration, STUNNING cover, a kick-ass heroine.  And I loved it, the writing, the story, the descriptions of the air battle, the life on Mars and Earth and onboard the airship Diana. Until about halfway through.

Because… Arabella isn’t really so kick-ass. She starts that way. A young girl raised on the Martian frontier, schooled in hunting and tracking, a girl with a scientific bent who shares her father’s love and affinity for automatons sounds like my kind of heroine. And I love the plot device wherein a girl disguises herself as a boy in order to accomplish an otherwise unattainable goal. But I think author David Levine missed an opportunity with this in his novel. Arabella’s purpose in disguising herself is to accomplish a goal, a goal she is quite capable of attaining as a young woman, but would never be given the chance to do so. When she is revealed as a girl, she is still as capable as the boy they thought her to be, but instead is treated as though she no longer can cope with space travel. And the problem I found is that she does not fight to keep her position, one she earned, but meekly accepts that things are no longer the same.

That is the first of the problems. The rest… oh boy. This is a science-fiction fantasy!  The world can be anything the author wishes! And apparently, he wished for some historical accuracy, even as his sailing ships (which look pretty much like 19th century sailing ships with the addition of large silk balloons to get the vessels aloft) dodged asteroids and his airmen breathed the atmosphere between the stars. So as they did this, they were also racist and sexist and believed in the colonization of Mars and the superiority of the white British male over pretty much everyone, including the inferior Martians. Mars is the interstellar equivalent of colonial India. And in addition, Levine still ensures the reader knows that Indians, while human, are not as good as the Brits. And don’t get me started on the portrayal and description of Mills, the one black crew member.

The captain of the Diana, Captain Singh, is a flat, one-dimensional, polite, fair-minded, darker-skinned man. Nice, but sadly, that’s pretty much it. And the predominantly white crew is determined to overthrow him. And, for some reason, Arabella is attracted to him. And I do not mean that in a way that she shouldn’t be. I mean that in the way that the romance subplot doesn’t work.  We have an adventure!  Let’s leave it at that! The romance reads as if the author was actually ticking off boxes, and thought, hey, she has to fall for someone!  We can’t have a young woman wanting to just make it on her own. Here’s a handsome guy with a good position, she can go for it. And given that the captain spent most of the book believing her to be a boy, the romance seems forced.

Why can’t we have a fantasy world without all these problems?  I know there needs to be some conflict and tension to move the story along, but really? They turned me off, and turned what was a fantastic adventurous read into a teeth-grinding slog.

Levine’s world building skills are incredible. He has won awards for his stories, and no wonder. I travelled through space aboard the Diana with Arabella, floated in the zero-gravity atmosphere alongside the airmen, looked out and saw nothing but vast darkness sprinkled with tiny pinpoints of light. The battle with the French pirates had me on edge, and I didn’t know if we would find a solution to the navigational problem. Levine can weave a story that has you believing that it is only a matter of time before humankind is travelling through space, docking on asteroids to take on supplies, and landing on distant worlds. I just wish he had written a world where humanity could attain more than just another plot of land.

Arabella of Mars was published July 12th, 2016 by Tor.

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Esper Files (Esper Files #1)

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In Victorian London, an experiment in controlling electromagnetic power goes horribly wrong, resulting in the Great Storm. This unnatural meteorological occurrence affects some of the population’s electromagnetic field, giving strange new abilities, which of course leads to the rest of the population turning against them in fear, and having the “Espers” live as outcasts.

But not all of them. The man responsible for the failed experiment, the Professor, starts up an Institute to train Espers to handle their abilities, and use them for good. Two of his top agents are James, who possesses the ability to teleport, and Nathan, who can mirror anyone’s ability through feeling their emotion. Together, they rescue Espers and fight against the Baron, a corrupt man and former partner of the Professor who controls an army of corrupt Espers, and wants to control the world. But the Baron has a controller as well…

And you know what would have taken me less time to type? Hey – do you like the X-Men? Then read this series. For the Professor, insert Xavier, for Espers Mutants, for Baron Magneto, for the Institute the School for Gifted Youngsters.

What we have here is a steampunk reimagining of the X-Men universe. But I’m not sure if you can call it a reimagining. It is the X-Men.  Eccentric professor saving youngsters with powers that the population fears and a powerful man with a link to the professor who has gone rogue and is bent on controlling the world.  Put it all in Victorian London, add the Parliament and an airship, and bingo.

What was good? Author Egan Brass writes fabulous action sequences and scenes. The story is well-paced and flows smoothly from one scene to the next. He doesn’t get caught up in over describing the scenes but gives enough detail to really draw the reader into the action. Reading it, I knew where every character was, their actions, and could picture each sequence.

The characters are a bit predictable but change and develop through the novel.  The Professor is horrified by the use of Esper powers for evil and fights for the good of all. *cough* Professor X *cough*. Nathan is a poor outcast with extraordinary powers who is a trouble maker and self-destructive but really has a heart of gold as he discovers how to control his impulses. *cough* Logan *cough*  James is the sidekick, shunned from society as an Esper and a person of colour . *cough* Storm *cough*  You can start to see a pattern… Freya is an orphan whose powers come out under duress as her adoptive parents are murdered and brother is abducted, and she must learn to control her power in order to rescue him.

But. There are problems with the book, besides the obvious inspiration behind it. As a fantasy, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended anyway. But there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, of why/how people got abilities through the Great Storm. Nor does it actually ever explain how the Great Storm came about. The failed experiment wasn’t the only factor.

Also, I was distracted throughout by typos and incorrect sentence structure (pot, meet kettle). It is difficult to be in the middle of an action-packed battle scene or tense situation and grind to a halt because of poor word choice or lack of proof-reading. The author has a good story-telling talent, but he needs an editor. (I just researched the publisher and discovered it is a self-publishing site.)  His sentences follow a certain pattern (it is always “he said” or “she ordered” or “the Baron yelled” or “Shadow snarled.”  Mix it up, please).

Show, don’t tell, please. Show me how Nathan learns his self-worth, instead of having me follow his every thought about his life and realizing he is a good person in the end. Show me how Freya comes to trust everyone instead of having read her thoughts as she looks upon her teammates and sees they are good people. And so on. And so on.

The last few chapters were obvious attempts to tie up loose ends and build suspense for the next book in the series, but suddenly certain characters were acting out of character, and I wish the book had ended three chapters earlier than it did.

After all that, you probably think I hated it.  I didn’t. Criticisms aside, this is a fun, fast-paced story. I read it in one sitting, and while it has some violent, fairly gruesome scenes (if excessive blood loss turns you off, or you don’t like the idea of snacking on someone’s brains, this book is not for you), it is a good story for a lazy afternoon.  It is the first in a series, so I am hoping the next book irons out some of the problems.

By the way.  I popped over to Goodreads after I wrote this and read the reviews of the book there.  I’m a DEFINITE minority in my criticisms, so take this review for what it’s worth.

Esper Files was published October 26th, 2016 by Inkitt.

Airships of Camelot: The Rise of Arthur (#1)

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A post-apocalyptic steampunk wild west retelling of the Arthurian legend. That should get your attention, am I right?  There is a LOT going on in this novel. And I’m on the fence about how well it works.

To escape the Spanish flu epidemic after the Great War, U.S. Navy officers took to their airships in search of isolated places to hide their families and make a new life. But instead of banding together and saving their country, only three generations later there is an uneasy alliance between the now divided territories, each controlled by an Admiral. And that Admiral must negotiate with the Texans who control the helium reserves, or the airships don’t fly.

18-year-old Arthur is heir to one of the territories, Camelot. But although it is a peaceful land, his father’s mistress Morgan and bastard son Mordred scheme for power. Arthur’s ship spends weeks at a time raiding the various settlements his crew comes across for plunder. The Camelot residents see the inhabitants as savages, potantially infected with the Spain. Any goods they might have are ripe for the taking. But during a risky raid, Arther is stranded on the ground and he begins to see his life and land a bit differently.

This is one of those books that started out very slowly. It didn’t grab me by the throat and refuse to let me go, but I still read it cover to cover in one sitting.

There is good character development. Familiar names pop up throughout the story, and the instinct is to immediately connect them to the original myth. But author Robson Wells doesn’t make it that easy. Instead, he takes their personalities and builds new characters from the legendary ones. He succeeds fairly well. And Excalibur itself gets a new backstory and a steampunk makeover.

Wells does a marvelous job of world building. Recognizable landmarks in the southwestern US are given a bit of a twist to adapt them to the new world order, and they truly add to the atmosphere of the story.

The plot is slow at first. The history of the conflict, the epidemic, the way of life in the post-war society, the personalities involved, all take quite a bit of time to properly set up. But once Arthur is on the ground, the pace picks up along with the action.

There is a lack of information about the technology and steampunk aspect in the post-war world. Technology should be front and centre in steampunk, but it takes a bit of a back seat in this novel. Not enough is made of it; mechanical lungs, metal arms, juggernauts, etc., do not seem to be completely commonplace, yet there is neither an aversion or intense curiosity about the technology. It just is. And I want my steampunk to be very steampunk-y.

I’m not sure how much I would really label this story a retelling of Arthur. While there is acknowledgement of the legend and vague links to the original characters and storyline, without the title of the series the connection is not too obvious.

SO. I didn’t love this book, but would definitely finish the series. It is a fun nod in the direction of the Arthurian legend, with a tenuous link to the original story. But it has all the elements needed for a good tale, and with sequels, there is the potential to ramp it up a notch or two. It is good, not great, but can be read by anyone who likes an adventure.

The Rise of Arthur was published October 15th, 2015 by Franklin Shepherd.

This Monstrous Thing

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Well, talk about a book hangover.  The Serpent King gave me the worst one I have ever suffered, with three DNFs following that novel. But I have found the cure: an awesome, clever, original, steampunk retelling of Frankenstein.

Alasdair Finch is a Shadow Boy, one of the illegal group of craftsmen that build and maintain the clockwork parts some people need to survive. Legs, arms, even lungs and hearts. The clockwork people, known as Frankenstein, live shunned by society that thinks them less than human. And one horrible night in Geneva, in 1816, Alasdair loses the only three things that matter to him: his older brother Oliver dies, his secret love Mary leaves, and with their loss, his chance to escape his smothering life in the city and study at the university is gone.

Alasdair does the unimaginable. He resurrects Oliver. But it is not as simple as replacing bones and adding gears. Oliver’s clockwork heart beats and his oil paper lungs breathe, but he is a misshapen shadow of his former self, with few memories and a violent temper. Alasdair must keep him hidden, for his own safety, and the safety of the city. In the process, Mary disappears. Forever.

But two years on, Alasdair receives a package containing a book with a title but no author: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. And it is his story. His, and Oliver’s. And the book sparks a rebellion.

I have been reading a lot of retellings lately, and the good ones all have a couple of things in common: they pay tribute to the original and add unexpected twists and innovative elements to keep readers enthralled. Author Mackenzi Lee does just that.

Alasdair is a fabulous main character. He is a mechanical and medical genius, curious and intuitive, but severely lacking in emotional skills. It is perhaps his youth, or maybe being blinded by first love, but he misses a LOT of what, to others, would appear obvious. He is selfish in his need to resurrect Oliver, then selfish again in his desire to free himself from his obligation to his brother. But he is also capable of growth; he faces his fears and inadequacies and, in the end, stands up for what is right and just.

It is difficult to call Oliver and Mary and Clemence and Geisler secondary characters when they are beautifully alive and so central to the story. Mary is selfish and awful and true to life, Clemence is independent and vulnerable, Geisler is pure obsessive evil, and Oliver is a wonderful mirror for Alasdair’s own conflict.

The plot echoes the original’s creation myth, adding steampunk clockwork and weaving in  Shelley’s real-life exploits. It is about humans and monsters, and how often they are two sides of the same coin.

The world that Lee creates shows that she has clearly done her research. The literary references, the university, the attitudes, the cities and the people, are true to the period and the original. While Lee massages a few facts and timing to make her reimagining work, and the clockwork people are products of her amazing imagination, the overall feeling of the novel is authentic and reflective of the then societal fear of a rapidly changing  world.

And that cover. OH, that cover. Gorgeous and creepy and gothic and so promising of a story that will chill you to your bones.

This novel is appropriate for all ages, and is a must-read for a fan of the original.

This Monstrous Thing was published September 22nd, 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books.