I love the idea of steampunk. I love the fashion it has inspired, and the subculture around it, and I want to love the fiction. I haven’t read a whole lot of it yet, for various reasons, and what I have read hasn’t always worked for me. This anthology, though – put together by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, coming out from Candlewick Press – makes me very happy indeed. It might be the fact that it is aimed at the YA market that helps it hit the mark so well. It takes the notion of steampunk and does some seriously mad things with it. There are outrageous characters, unexpected settings, and some wonderful wonderful narratives. With very little fog and few bowler hats. There are a number of outstanding stories.
I read Libba Bray’s Going Bovine a while back and fell in love with it, so seeing her name in this ToC was like following the scent of chocolate. “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” is, indeed, simply glorious. Girl outlaws, clockwork, friendship, religion, love, and a tantalising world – it’s all here. Adelaide is adept at working with various clockwork contraptions and ends up working for the local law enforcement. As such she goes undercover, and… things proceed. The characters are charming (mostly); the plot unfolds at a brisk and enjoyable pace; and the few hints that Bray drops about the world make me want to email her right now and DEMAND a novel set in this place. The narrator’s voice added to my delight with the story, too; Bray takes a chance on using a slang (‘were’ instead of ‘was’, etc) that could have seemed forced or unnatural, and manages to make it both consistent and lilting rather than jarring. This is a seriously good story.
Kelly Link contributes “The Summer People,” and while I absolutely adore it I admit that I don’t really understand its place in a steampunk anthology. There are some minor aspects that I can see tying into the theme, but they don’t really seem important enough to make this story really fit the genre. Anyway – I’m not actually much of a one for hard ‘n’ fast genre delineation, so whatever. It’s a brilliant story. Fran is left to look after herself, the house, and the family business while sick, when her dad decides to go and get right with God. She enlists the help of a former friend, Ophelia, and the two end up spending more time together than Fran had expected. Link gets a lot of interesting issues into this story. The relationship between the two girls is a complex one, based on family status and origin and expectations; Fran’s relationship with her father is certainly a complex one; and there are suggestions that things in the wider world are going pear-shaped. Both Fran and Ophelia are very readable. This is another world about which I would devour a novel-version in a heartbeat.
Another story framed around the relationship of two unlikely friends is “Steam Girl.” Using the story-within-a-story trope, Horrocks has the freaky new girl telling stories to the loner nerd at her new school. It’s a wonderful, stunning mash of the indignities of being new and weird at school – oh, adolescent nightmare – together with a rollicking adventure worthy of Verne (there are dirigibles, and interplanetary jaunts). The new girl and the nerd work brilliantly, while the jock and the popular girl made me have flashbacks. Unlike the previous two stories, this one really works perfectly at this length, I think because the world itself was familiar.
“Nowhere Fast” was written by Christopher Rowe, and in reading it I had to double-check that I wasn’t back reading Welcome to the Greenhouse, because its steampunk-ish-ness comes as a result of climate change and the end of oil. A stranger, a car, and a young woman questioning her upbringing all illuminate a world where treading lightly on the earth is the paramount virtue. There are interesting familial relationship at play here, as well as friendships, and a sly comment on local vs national power structures, too.
Finally, the anthology finishes with “Oracle Engine,” by MT Anderson. Over the last few years I’ve had discussions with a fellow Roman history fan about the lack of ‘Romanpunk’ in our lives. Of course, she has since written a collection of short stories with that very title… and Anderson’s story fits into that as-yet-uncluttered subgenre. It’s based on true Roman events – those surrounding Crassus, richest man in Rome, and his rivalry with Pompey and Caesar; Anderson makes it fit the theme by making this a Rome like the alternate histories of Cherie Priest, Richard Harland or Scott Westerfeld’s efforts in steampunkland. Also, he adds an oracle engine (duh, hence the title), and that’s just cool. Plus Minervan Virgins, sly Roman jokes, and a style reminiscent of Roman historians. A worthy end to the anthology indeed.