Category Archives: Reviews

Comments that review a book, story, movie, or whatever else catches my imagination.

Goodreads

Goodreads-iconSo, let’s see. I started logging the books I’ve read into Goodreads on March 2014.  Since then I’ve read 253 books (this is not counting the books I started and put down as too bad to finish and a handful of short free ebooks that didn’t seem worth the effort of writing down), for about 25 books a month. Yeah, that seems about right….

Keeping track of my day-t0-day reading has been an interesting life experiment, but as part of my effort to simplify my to-dos and focus on my writing, I’m going to stop recording everything I read and adding it to my Goodreads bookshelves. I’ll continue to update Goodreads whenever I’ve read something that I feel strongly enough about to recommend to others, but I’m no longer going to keep updating it with every new book I’ve finished. I  hope you’ll understand and forgive me — and not assume that what you see on my Goodreads shelves continues to represent my regular reading habits!

Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale

Wicked Gentlemen
Ginn Hale
2007, Blind Eye Books

Wicked Gentlemen CoverWicked Gentlemen is a dark and lush gaslamp fantasy set in the Victorianesque city of Crowncross, where the Covenant of Redemption brought Ashmedai, Sariel, and Satanel up from hell to experience baptism and the Great Conversion. Now the demonic offspring of hell’s great princes, the Prodigals, dwell in the Crowncross slum called Hells Below, where they petition for equal rights and are closely monitored by Inquisitors and Confessors intent on maintaining peace in the Holy Capitol.

The novel, which won the 2008 Gaylaxicon Spectrum Award, consists of two sequential books. In the first, “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly,” readers meet first-person narrator Belimai Sykes, an ophorium-addicted Prodigal hired by the Inquisitor Captain William Harper and his brother-in-law Dr. Edward Talbott to help investigate the disappearance of Harper’s half-sister, Talbott’s wife, Joan. Joan Talbott, who was an active advocate for women’s and Prodigals’ suffrage, vanished from a locked carriage just a few minutes from her house. The only clue Harper has is a handful of letters written to her by a fellow suffragist that warn of some impending danger.

Sykes is initially hired to talk to the letter-writer, a Prodigal who is being detained in the Brighton House of Inquisition. But when the suspect is found brutally murdered in his holding cell, it becomes clear to both Prodigal and Inquisitor that this mystery won’t be so easily resolved. And neither will be the partnership between them, as Sykes and Harper find themselves drawn to each other but separated by differences in upbringing, values, and rank that seem impossible to overcome.

As they unpeel the layers of corruption and black magic that lie behind Joan’s disappearance and the Prodigal’s death, both Sykes and Harper find that they must rethink their relationship with their own pasts in order to reach a decision about their relationship with each other.

In the second book, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” the story shifts to Inquisitor Harper’s third-person point of view. While on his way out of Crowncross to visit his family estate, Harper is drawn into a murder investigation that is quite obviously being manipulated to protect the rich and guilty and frame the poor and helpless — that is, the Prodigals. Soon realizing that Bellimai Sykes is on the short list of suspects, the captain must move quickly to hide his ailing lover, only to find himself drawn into the frame. Ethics and necessity clash as Harper pits himself against his own superiors to avenge a child’s death and save an innocent man from execution.

Wicked Gentlemen is a short but rich read, a male/male romantic thriller with a touch of polite reserve that gives it a charmingly Victorian sensibility. Both Sykes and Harper are appealing characters, each struggling with his own weaknesses but essentially good at heart. Interestingly, their two story arcs form something of an X — while Sykes’ story arc moves him from cynicism to hope, Harper’s story arc goes in the opposite direction, as he becomes increasingly dismayed by the Inquisition he serves.

The city of Crowncross is also well-described, allowing for the restrained presence of magic but otherwise maintaining an atmosphere of fantastic realism. With its urban backdrop and restrained use of magic, Wicked Gentlemen calls to mind Ellen Kushner’s male/male romance Swordspoint (it’s tempting to draw parallels between Alec and Sykes and Richard and Harper), and its use of a fantasized Christian mythos invites comparison with Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy novels. However, Wicked Gentlemen‘s Crowncross is more modern and oppressive than Kushner’s Riverside, and less erotic and magical than Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange. Indeed, despite its references to demons and the Inquisition, Wicked Gentlemen avoids any direct mention of Christianity, using its religious allusions primarily to create a framework of political and social oppression within which its cross-class romance and mysteries can be set.

If Wicked Gentlemen has any weakness, it’s that by the end of the first book, one has to wonder why Harper hired Sykes in the first place.  However, that’s a minor plot quibble, not hard to rationalize away — most readers won’t even pause to think about it as they eagerly turn the page to start Harper’s story.

I bought this novel from the publisher’s booth at Yaoi-Con 2008 hoping that it would be the kind of story that would please a boys’ love fan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wicked Gentlemen is, without question, better-written than any of the boys’ love novels currently being translated from Japanese, although some BL fans may find its sex scenes overly restrained. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent example of the kind of male/male romance that’s starting to be recognized as a distinct publishing genre in the U.S., and its Victorianesque fantasy setting couldn’t help but appeal to me. I turned the last page hoping that Ginn Hale will soon revisit Sykes, Harper, and Crowncross in a sequel. In the meantime, I’ll be reading the excerpts from her latest fantasy, Lord of the White Hell, on her blog….

The City & The City by China Mieville

The City & The CityOver the weekend I read China Miéville’s The City & The City, and once again I’m in awe of his apparently limitless imagination. C&C is a much more understated book than, say, Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, but its premise is startlingly original. Lit grad students take note — The City & The City is as analytically rich as any novel you’ve been reading by Eco, opening itself to critical and metaphorical readings and calling into question all the ways in which political and social divisions are created, adopted, and enforced.

The City & The City is, at one level, a murder mystery: a young woman is found dead in a skate park in Besźel, and Inspector Tyador Borlú must figure out who killed her, and why. Along the way, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a baffling mix of myth, conspiracy, and political radicalism.

C&C is also a political novel: Borlú’s  investigation of the murder requires him to negotiate the social and political tensions between two separate and rival countries, Besźel and Ul Qoma, one a quiet backwater struggling to get by and the other a thriving nation grown wealthy from foreign investment. Rivalry and prejudice hinder his ability to work with his Ul Qoman counterpart, but both need each other as their shared case becomes increasingly dangerous.

And, finally, C&C is a concept novel: The streets of Besźel and Ul Qoma are separated only by the ability of their citizens to ignore each other. How the two nations — and their foreign visitors — can carry out such a breathtaking feat of perceptual selectivity is brilliantly thought out, and its complexity makes what seems to be a simple murder investigation infinitely more challenging.

I have a peculiar passion for books about unique cities; for example, I described my love of  eternal cities in an earlier review. The City & The City, not surprisingly, is as much about Besźel and Ul Qoma as it is about any of its human characters. True, Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t exactly eternal cities — they are more along the lines of Eastern European everycities — but they capture the same sense of strict boundaries, risky transgressions, and discomforting liminalities. And, what’s even better, they do so without quite breaching the border between contemporary fiction and fantasy … although there are some mighty odd artefacts knocking around Ul Qoma.

As I finished this book, I thought to myself that many concepts get recycled in fiction; somebody comes up with an original idea or juxtaposition of ideas, uses it in a novel, and suddenly a half-dozen other writers are following suit and a new genre is born. But the core concept of The City & The City can only be successfully used once, and Miéville has done so.  It is so simple and obvious, as the very best ideas are, that any other attempt to use it will inevitably come across as derivative.

I look forward to finding out how Miéville will impress me next.

Gears of the City by Felix Gilman

Gears of the CityI picked up Gears of the City by Felix Gilman because the cover art made it look steampunk and because I’m a sucker for a good city. Gears isn’t steampunk, but it is very much an “eternal city” novel.

Gears of the City introduces a curious cast of characters all struggling to pierce the secret Mountain at the heart of eternal, timeless Ararat at that very moment in time that the ur-city seems to be most in peril.

The central protagonist is Arjun, who has lost much of his memory and is being relentlessly pursued by unnatural Hollow Men as a result of his failed attempt to storm the Mountain in search of his missing god of music. Confused and helpless, Arjun finds himself stranded in a gray, almost musically devoid period in Ararat’s history, virtually at the foot of the Mountain, where he swiftly runs afoul of a captured and prophetic Beast and the dark-coated patrolmen called Know-Nothings. He takes refuge with two sisters, Marta and Ruth Low, who ask him to rescue their sister Ivy from the clutches of the depraved, blaspheming outsider Brace-Bel.

But entering Brace-Bel’s mansion only opens up a multitude of new questions, and as Arjun slowly regains his memory, he realizes that he stands at a significant and perilous moment in the history of Ararat. Both aided and stymied by the other madmen who have managed to slip into the “Metacontext” to travel through Ararat—men like handsome St. Loup, cynical Father Turnbull, and inventive Potocki—Arjun struggles to find the elusive, sociopathic mastermind Shay and return once more to the Mountain.

Gears of the City is a sequel to Thunderer, which also features Arjun and the city of Ararat, but it is not necessary to read Thunderer before reading Gears.

The subgenre that I’m calling “eternal city” isn’t, I’ll admit, for everyone. It’s usually highly fantastic, populated by fascinating, amoral eccentrics and beautiful, deadly beasts who wander through a labyrinthine, ever-changing, immortal metropolis on their own singular missions.  It seldom has a straightforward plot, delighting instead in a series of picaresque and/or weird encounters, usually with political overtones.  It doesn’t often try to draw the reader in emotionally, instead allowing  the reader to engage with the story as a flâneur, intrigued by but detached from the curiosities the novel puts on display. In an eternal city novel, the city itself is essential to the plot, and not merely a setting; moreover, one gets the distinct feeling that the city is essential to many plots; that you’re only reading one story but brushing up against many others just as interesting. An eternal city writer might strengthen this impression by mentioning or returning to the city in several works, keeping the city’s name and some references intact but otherwise feeling free to ignore continuity because, after all, the eternal city is both timeless and ever-changing.

One of the greatest eternal cities is M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, although some other fantasy cities come close to its properties: Gene Wolfe’s Nessus and China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, for example. Roger Zelazny’s Amber, though not a city, has eternal city properties, as does Michael Moorcock’s End of Time — both are locations (a world, a point at time) that cast reflections and/or ripples on many other linked but lesser locations. What other eternal cities am I forgetting? Some otherwise interesting fantasy cities don’t quite make the cut — Sanctuary and Lankhmar, for example, or RPG cities like Greyhawk. And although some real cities have attained near-mythic status in literature, such as London, New York, and Tokyo, I don’t think they’re quite what I’m getting at, although I could probably be persuaded to include them in terms of their existence as literary constructs, at least….

At any rate, Ararat is most certainly an eternal city, and I hope that Gilman continues to refer to it in later works, whether or not he returns to the same characters or histories established in Thunderer and Gears of the City — after all, a truly eternal city stands apart from the people who live within it.

The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist

The Dark Volume“Did either of you know she looked into a book? A glass book?”

“Not at all,” answered Svenson. “Are you sure?”

“She said nothing,” muttered Chang.

“But when would she have?” admitted Svenson. [...]

“The point is that my glass book was empty,” said Elöise, “its intent being to take my memories. But Miss Temple looked into a book that was full.”

Doctor Svenson set down his spoon.

“My Lord. A full book … instead of the few incidents captured in a single glass card. One could experience entire lifetimes—and dear heaven, you would remember those experiences from other lives as things you yourself had done. An entire book … and depending on the memories it contained … and given the decadent tastes of the Comte…” The Doctor paused.

“So I suppose I merely wonder what she dreams,” said Elöise quietly.  (p. 118-119)

The Dark Volume, sequel to Gordon Dahlquist’s dark, gaslamp-alchemical fantasy The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, begins about a week after the former book’s end. Far from being over, the political machinations and personal corruption surrounding the secrets of the indigo glass books are still in full bloom — and promise to extend into at least one more volume.

None of the characters have escaped the terrible events in Harschmort Manor and the subsequent slaughter on the dirigible untouched, either emotionally or physically. As The Dark Volume begins, Miss Celeste Temple thrashes in the throes of a fever, tormented by the depraved memories implanted within her by her own encounter with one of the consciousness-recording glass books. Cardinal Chang is weighed down by the destruction of his uncaring but beloved Angelique and the open mistrust of the villagers with whom they have taken refuge. Doctor Abelard Svenson is doing his best to tend to Celeste and deflect suspicion from Chang, but his romantic interest in the widowed Elöise Dujong is thwarted by her revelation that the memories she lost to one of those glass books may have revealed that she’d already been involved with someone … and she feels she must discourage his attentions until she can retrieve what she has forgotten.

Just as The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters started with Miss Temple’s abandonment by her fiance Roger Bascombe, The Dark Volume commences with her abandonment by Cardinal Chang and Doctor Svenson. Each character has been forced by circumstances to go his or her own way — Chang confronting pursuers sent to search for the airship’s survivors by the city’s corrupted Privy Council, Svenson investigating a series of gruesome murders in the village that suggest to him that at least one of their foes from the fallen dirigible is still alive, and Eloise and Miss Temple all but driven away by the suspicious villagers and hoping they might meet up with their two companions further down the road — if only they can escape their enemies, first.

As in The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, the story is told in extended chapters, each breathlessly following either Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, or Doctor Svenson from peril to peril. Yet, as its title intimates, this is a darker volume than the first, and its dark atmosphere pervades each character’s emotions as she or he struggles to come to terms with the consequences of earlier actions. In The Dark Volume, the reader is invited more deeply into each character’s heart, which adds a psychological depth to the story that wasn’t present in the first book. It continues the alchemical motif of transformation that was introduced in The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, but while in the first novel it was only the villains who seemed to be betraying each other, the second makes trust a more central theme for its protagonists: how far can they trust themselves or each other, and under what circumstances?

Miss Temple no longer knows who or what she is, filled with strangers’ unsavory, unexpected urges and, later, the pervasive, angry taint of a forbidden knowledge absorbed when she encounters the dark volume of the title. Part of her wants simply to retreat to the comfort of her well-to-do existence in the city, but every action she takes drives her further from the life she once knew — turning her, she realizes, into the same kind of person as the cruel Countess di Lacquer-Sforza or, perhaps, the scarred killer Cardinal Chang. Although she’s not the type to succumb to introspection for very long, even hard-edged Miss Temple finds herself disturbed by what she’s coming to realize about herself.

Cardinal Chang, for his own part, is also tempted to return to the familiar haunts of the city’s poor sections and the sweet oblivion of an opium den — but he’s pursued by enemies both living and dying who aren’t inclined to let him rest. One mishap after another inexorably drives him back to Harschmort Manor, where the slaughter and explosions of weeks past still haven’t ended the debauchery of the prince’s wedding celebrations and a series of old enemies gather like vultures to pick over what is left of their dying dreams. And for all his ruthlessness and sense of estrangement from the rest of the world, Chang still suffers from a well-hidden delicacy of feeling that provides his enemy a weakness to exploit.

Doctor Svenson is in the most precarious position of the three, however. A public figure declared a traitor by his own government, actively hunted down by his enemies in the government of his host country, rejected by Elöise, and foreseeing no better future for himself than, perhaps, as a brothel abortionist, Svenson clings to what tattered remains of duty offer themselves — hunting down the killer who is leaving shards of blue glass in the bodies of his victims and escorting Eloise safely back to her home. Unfortunately, Svenson’s honorable nature gives him little protection against the perfidiousness of his enemies.

It’s often difficult to judge whether the second novel in a series is better than the first. The reader has the advantage of already knowing a great deal about the setting and characters — there’s less of a learning curve involved in reading a sequel, and more opportunity to enjoy revisiting familiar places and personalities. (And speaking of learning curves, these books are long and convoluted, so don’t even think about trying to dive into this book before reading the first.) However, The Dark Volume addresses some of the weaknesses of the first, primarily by its deeper probing into the characters’ personalities. Miss Temple, Chang, and Svenson have been changed by their actions and discoveries, and their coming to grips with that internal change is part of this novel’s darkness, as is their grappling with the external changes that abruptly turn enemies into allies and allies into enemies. In addition, with the second novel a full 260 pages shorter than the first, the three characters’ individual storylines are more closely wound together, as each is more attentive to any sign of the others’ passing and wonders whether they will ever meet again.

As each discovers, the secrets of the indigo glass and the infernal machines of the Process haven’t yet been destroyed, and as long as such things exist, the cabal’s plot to take over the nation — if not the world — remains intact. None of them can escape the blue-glass web of intrigue, betrayal, and alchemical mystery that has been spun around them, as one-by-one they encounter enemies old and new and stumble across startling alliances and devastating betrayals. And just as in the first novel, no matter what tortuous routes Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson pursue in their investigations, they’re destined to meet again — in an explosive, blood-soaked battle that will leave readers horrified and eagerly anticipating the next volume in the series.

Dahlquist’s imaginative series is almost certainly destined to become a new fantasy classic. Anyone who loves their dark fantasy imbued with a Victorian gaslamp/steampunk atmosphere and just a touch of the erotic shouldn’t hesitate to pick up The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and The Dark Volume … and sign up early for the third.

Other steampunk-friendly books:

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist
The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips
The Grand Ellipse by Paula Volsky

The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips

The Engine's ChildThe rain beyond the porch roof sang and pattered and sighed. Electric lamps on the dam blazed all night, every night, but here, with the temple and half the scholarium buildings between, the rain stole all the light. Passageways and cloistered yards were filled with falling sparks, while the buildings were only an absence, a darkness where nothing fell. — p. 3

Magic, philosophy, and technology mingle in Holly Phillips’ imaginative novel The Engine’s Child (2008). Neither steampunk nor gaslamp, though likely to be of interest to readers of both, this lushly written, slender volume depicts a humanity gripped by hubris as it stands before the shores of the great unknown, seeking to penetrate a darkness that neither candles nor electric lights can dismiss.

The world of The Engine’s Child is one small island encompassed by an endless, unexplored ocean; an island that is being flooded by nonstop rains and overcrowded by humans at risk of running out of food and space to live. Only the towers along the bay have electrical power; the religiously conservative shaudah who rules the island’s demesnes has forbidden the technologically adept Vashmarna demesne to run electricity out into the countryside or into the slums located in the tidal flats across the bay from the towers. But Lady Vashmarna believes the shaudah is being short-sighted and is pursuing her own complex plots within the poverty-stricken, superstitious warrens of the tidal, where the young dedicate Moth is using her unique power to touch the unknown — the mundab — to fashion a great arcane engine. What neither of them realizes is that they are not the only ones seeking to pierce the veil of the unknown. When politics, religion, and magic clash, they threaten to tear the island apart.

The characters of The Engine’s Child are complex and multifaceted, interesting to read about but difficult to love. Both Vashmarna and Moth are essentially flawed, weakened by their overconfidence and reliance on secrecy and lies as they seek to free their people — as each individually defines the term — from oppression. Achieving neither heroic nor antiheroic stature, their motives and purposes run from the admirable to the disagreeable. This same fallibility runs through the less central characters, as well: the demesne lord Divaram Ghar and his priestly son Baradam; Moth’s obsessed tutor Istvan Soos; the shadow-cult assassin Hamana; the unreadably distant and disinterested shaudah; the jealous but loyal tidal girl Silk; and the conflicted engineer Aramis Tapurnashen, who is the only character who seems to be trying to reconcile love and duty in some honorable fashion.

Although the characters in The Engine’s Child may be difficult to admire, the world is not. Phillips does a phenomenal job of describing her exotic, monsoon-sodden setting, which vividly juxtaposes leaking temples with an electrically lit dam; mud-covered slum streets with soaring, glass-walled towers; and one small, overcrowded sliver of land against a vast, featureless, unknowable expanse of ocean. The small island world teems with life — biting flies, jewel-colored lizards, blue-eyed temple cats, roof gardens, strangling vines — and the ever-present contrast between technology, nature, and the mysterious mundab is evocatively drawn out throughout the book.

Also present throughout the book are three thematic threads. The first, the familiar vs. the unknown, encompasses the other two: the loving mother vs. the absent mother and humility vs. hubris.

The first thread, the familiar vs. the unknown, is the most central. On an interpersonal level, the poor denizens of the tidal slums and the privileged denizens of the bayside towers both look upon each other as alien and untrustworthy. Similarly, the village-dwelling denizens of the hadaras, or countryside, look with suspicion on the demesne-dwelling denizens of the shadras, or densely populated area. Even within the shadras, the divisions exist: Vashmarna demesne versus Ghar demesne; engineer versus priest; religion versus cult; shadow cult versus Society of Doors.

All of these interpersonal divisions reflect the larger philosophical framework that defines and confounds humanity: that of the rasnan — the known world — versus the mundab — or the great unknown. Originally applied to the island versus the ocean, the terms have taken on a mythological status for a people whose legends tell that they arrived on the rasnan from another world, the ramhadras, a world that might have been a heaven from which they were exiled or a hell from which they escaped. Either way, the loss of that ancient birthplace is reflected in a religion that worships distant gods while rejecting the land in which it’s now based.

The second theme, loving mother versus absent mother, can of course be linked to the first, in the sense that the world is the mother of life. In this sense, the rasnan, the small island upon which humanity lives, might be characterized as the loving mother — albeit a mother rejected — and the ramhadras, or world left behind, might be the absent mother. Two of the deities worshiped by the populace reflect this binarism, the first holding the second’s face like a mask: Kistnu, absent mother, stretch out your hand. Kistnaran, mother of absence, turn your terrible face aside. Motherhood is also significant in the relationships, literal and symbolic, between the various characters, as well as in their relationship to the objects — whether technological or magical or some combination of the two — that they create in their attempts to release humanity from its exile.

This attempt leads to the third of the novel’s themes, humility vs. hubris.  The characters each believe they alone possess the power to save humanity and conquer the mundab, but such hubris inevitably leads the island to the brink of destruction. Only their acceptance of and reconciliation with the unknown can offer beleagued humanity any hope of saving itself.

So, is it gaslamp or steampunk?  Neither, inasmuch as both gaslamp and steampunk present a Victorianesque view of the world; The Engine’s Child has a far more fantastic cultural setting, with echoes of Asia in its descriptions of monsoon-like weather, bamboo chimes, and cone-shaped straw hats. Nor would I classify the novel as “smoke & sorcery,” as its use of hydroelectric power puts the technological level in the late 19th to early 20th century. Science fantasy? Technological fantasy? Neither of those terms captures quite the right nuance, since the presence of magic is at least as important  as that of technology in this novel. The cover blurb compares The Engine’s Child, with some justice, to the work of Jeff Vandermeer and China Miéville, so perhaps we’ll just have to assign it to the New Weird and be content. Regardless, The Engine’s Child is a complex and enterprising novel offering a thought-provoking plot within a memorable setting.

If you enjoy your fantasy with richly unusual settings, powerful female characters, and/or the hybridization of magic and technology, The Engine’s Child definitely deserves your attention.

Other reviews of steampunk-friendly works:

The Grand Ellipse by Paula Volsky
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist
The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

Glass Books of the Deam Eaters“To the great distress of my only available relative, I have been thrust into the company of two men at the very border — if that — of respectability. This morning we were strangers. In this instant all three of us are without sanctuary. What I want — in fact demand — is that we make quite clear what we each hope to achieve in this matter, what masters we serve — in short, what is our agreement.

She waited for their reaction. The two men were silent.

“I do not find the request excessive,” said Miss Temple.

Svenson nodded at her, looked to Chang and muttered, groping in his pocket. “Excuse me — a cigarette — it will distract from the altitude, this sea of vacant space —” He looked back at Miss Temple. “You are correct. It is most sensible. We do not know each other — chance has thrown us together.”

“Can we not do this later?” asked Chang, his tone clinging to the merest edge of civility.

“When would that be?” answered Miss Temple. “Do we even know where we are going next? Have we decided how best to act? Who to pursue? Of course we haven’t, because we have each made assumptions from our very different experiences.”

Chang exhaled, vexed. After a moment, he nodded sharply, as if to invite her to begin. (pp. 239-240).

Is The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (2006) by Gordon Dahlquist steampunk or gaslamp? It’s not an easy question to answer, although I’ll venture to say that this imaginative and massive first novel is primarily gaslamp fantasy, with strong currents of steampunk, pulp-style action-adventure, and Victorian eroticism — a challenging balancing act that Dahlquist, for the most part, carries off extraordinarily well. The novel didn’t get the widespread recognition it deserved when it first came out in hardback, although its re-issue in two paperback volumes has been garnering it more attention from the general public. Its sequel, The Dark Volume, will be released in a two more weeks.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters follows its three mismatched protagonists out of an unnamed city and into the labyrinthine and forbidding depths of Harschmort Manor, where a dark cabal of powers mesh alchemy and technology into cerulean glass books designed to seduce and destroy the nation’s foremost citizens. All three characters have lost someone they love, and all three come to grips with that loss and with their own renewed sense of mission as they work together to attain their diverse goals.

The central character of the novel is unquestionably Miss Celestial Temple, a strong-minded, well-to-do young lady in her twenties who has recently left her father’s island plantation to come to the city and marry. But her fiance, Roger Bascombe, has broken the engagement without offering any explanation, and Miss Temple is determined to find out why. Not because she wants him back, of course — she is too proud for that, although she can’t help but feel a certain painful emptiness inside when she considers him — but because it’s in her nature not to be satisfied until she understands what has happened. However, Miss Temple’s intrepid pursuit of Bascombe on a train full of masked and cloaked strangers plunges her into a bizarre and remote engagement party where she is captured, interrogated, and then sent to be ravished and killed — but turns the tables on her captors and escapes, battered but intact, to take the train back to the city. And it is on that train, with bruises around her neck and blood staining her dress, that her defiant gaze meets that of fellow passenger Cardinal Chang.

Cardinal Chang is a killer-for-hire, his scarred eyes hidden by smoked lenses and a utilitarian razor tucked into the red coat that gives him the name “Cardinal.” (The “Chang” derives from the scars around his eyes, the result of a bar brawl and a young aristocrat’s whip.) A ruthless killer who savors poetry and a sense of honor, Cardinal Chang had traveled to the masque only to find out that the man he’d been sent to kill was already dead. In his subsequent inquiries, he discovers that his secret love, the beautiful whore Angelique, has been subjected by the cabal to a terrible and possibly fatal experiment. It’s while searching for her that he sees, for the first time, Dr. Abelard Svenson, who is searching to Prince Karl-Horst von Maasmärck of the Duchy of Macklenburg.

Dr. Abelard Svenson’s wearisome job is to play babysitter to the Macklenburg prince, who has traveled from his country to marry the daughter of wealthy and powerful Lord Vandaariff. But then the prince mysteriously vanishes from a garret room, leaving behind only a small card of blue glass that, which Svenson picks it up, draws his mind into its scandalously erotic scene, immersing him within the lascivious sensations of the woman involved. A clue discerned within the scene starts Svenson on a search for his prince that nearly gets him killed and finally leads him back to a hotel where he runs into both Miss Temple and Cardinal Chang.

And thus the three protagonists finally speak, some 213 pages into the hardback version of the novel, and agree to work together to unravel the mystery of the blue glass books and the political plot that threatens to quietly and insidiously overwhelm both the country they are in — which is never named, although one assumes it is England — and the Germanic Duchy of Macklenburg.

If The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters has any weakness, it’s in the author’s decision to follow each character’s progress to those occasional meeting-points, leaping back in time with Cardinal Chang and bringing him to a nexus-point, and then leaping back in time with Svenson until bringing him to the nexus-point, and then back again with Miss Temple. Thus, after our three heroes separate around page 263 of the hardback, it takes another 411 pages before they are all able to converse together again. True, each character’s story is interesting in itself. They each character possess admirable strengths and touching vulnerabilities and undergo a sort of individual alchemical transformation of their own: Miss Temple comes to terms with her own strength and repressed eroticism, Cardinal Chang sacrifices a futile love for honor and friendship, and Dr. Abelard Svenson becomes the hero he never thought he could be — but the reader can’t help but feel impatient with all the lengthy backtracking, eager for the three to get back together again for the grand finale.

However, for readers who are willing to proceed patiently, the novel offers a splendid story. Its rather Victorian writing style, verbose and overly correct, acts, like Victorian manners themselves, as a veil of civility softening the baser realities of human nature — the novel revels in cold-blooded murder and threateningly erotic temptations, thrilling rooftop sword-fights and ghastly techno-alchemical transformations. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is an alternative-history fantasy in the most subtle possible way, realistic in every detail except the particulars of place, person, and — of course — the bizarre, almost magical technology that creates the mysterious and deadly blue glass books.

Although The Grand Ellipse is a gaslamp fantasy that I feel confident will appeal to most readers who enjoyed Clockwork Heart, I have to recommend The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters with more caveats. I enjoyed and admired this novel a great deal, but it’s not a romance, and its undertones of Victorian eroticism — sometimes involving dominance/submission situations — may turn off some readers (however, I detest novels in which the female protagonist is raped, so trust that I wouldn’t recommend one to you here). On the other hand, if you’re looking for something different, something that straddles the division between gaslamp and steampunk, mystery and thriller, fantasy and science fiction, while never relinquishing a strong Victorian sensibility, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is a must-read.

The novel’s sequel, The Dark Volume, which appears to address the question of how Miss Temple’s sense of identity will cope after being immersed in so many others’ memories, comes out on March 24, and I’ll review it as soon as I’ve read it.

Read the review of this book’s sequel, The Dark Volume.

Other steampunk-friendly books:

The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist
The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips
The Grand Ellipse by Paula Volsky

Steampunk Fantasy Romance: The Grand Ellipse

The Grand EllipseA few readers have asked me what other books I might recommend that are like Clockwork Heart. The novel that instantly leaps to mind is Paula Volsky’s richly textured The Grand Ellipse (2000). Although it’s primarily gaslamp fantasy, I think fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance will appreciate it: the main characters possess very Victorian outlooks and prejudices, and 19th-century technologies abound, so that along with arcane adepts, shamans, and various types of nonhumans, you’ll find locomotives, steamships, hot-air balloons, gas lights, and firearms.

The Grand Ellipse begins with a nod to Jules Verne’s (1873) Around the World in Eighty Days. The king of Low Hetz proposes an international race he calls the Grand Ellipse, which requires contestants to complete a great circuit of the continent, getting their passports stamped at each stop. The course begins in Low Hetz and moves through “the modern, comparatively civilized western nations, stretched far eastward, curving through the remote mountainous reaches of largely untamed Bizaqh and Zuleekistan, through the savage forests of Oorex, even as far as exotic Aveshq” (p. 36). The winner will be granted title, land, and money.

Luzelle Devaire, a Vonarhrish scholar-adventurer whose small reserve of money is about to run out, must either secure her reputation or go crawling back to her conservative and disapproving father and consign herself to life under his thumb. In the face of such a choice, the offer by Deputy Underminister vo Rouvignac to fund her participation in the Grand Ellipse seems like the answer to her prayers. If she wins, not only will she be allowed to keep the reward, but she’ll also achieve enough public recognition to secure her future as a researcher and lecturer.

However, her government’s sponsorship comes with a price. If Devaire wins the race, the Vonarhrish Foreign Ministry expects her to use her private audience with King Miltzin IX of Low Hetz to convince him to sell Vonarh the secret to Sentient Fire, an arcane discovery that His Majesty, prizing his Low Hetz’s time-honored tradition of neutrality, refuses to release. Devaire is to use any means necessary to wheedle from the king the Sentient Fire or, at least, information about the adept’s location, because if Vonahr doesn’t get this ultimate weapon, it’s going to fall to the despotic and powerful Grewzian Imperium, which has already conquered most of the neighboring countries.

It’s the kind of request that never would have been made of a proper, respectable Vonarhrish lady, but because Devaire travels to strange lands, publishes scholarly papers, and gives public lectures, clearly — the government assumes — she’s a “lady of some worldly knowledge, experience, and sophistication.”

Desperate for money and eager for fame, Devaire clamps down on her indignation and agrees to the terms.

But matters grow more complicated as she enters the Grand Ellipse and meets her fellow contestants. They include the prankish and obscenely wealthy Festinette twins, Stesian and Trefian, who won’t hesitate to use their money to their advantage; the brooding, muscular, and heavily drinking Bav Tchornoi, who has a violent streak; the inventor Szett Urrazole and her Miracle Self-Propelling Carriage, who leaves everyone else choking on her dust; the kindly but financially strapped speculator Mesq’r Zavune; the tedious merchant Porb Jil Liskjil; the stammering blueblood Foune Hay-Frinl; the physician Dr. Phineska …

…  the devastatingly handsome Grewzian military hero Overcommander Karsler Stornzof, whose country is poised to invade Vonahr …

… and Devaire’s ex-fiance, whom she fled seven years ago, the older, aristocratic, and ever-so-proper Girays v’Alisante.

The Grand Ellipse follows Devaire, Stornzof, and v’Alisante through far-flung and dangerous lands, where they grapple with strange customs, perilous weather, wild animals, mysterious sabotage, political tension, unknown magic, and all kinds of conveyances both living, arcane, and mechanical as they vie with each other and the rest of the competition to get their passports stamped and be the first back to Low Hetz.  But back in Low Hetz, the adept who summoned the Sentient Fire is having certain problems of his own keeping Masterfire’s childishly eager appetite in check….

Volsky’s fantasy world is imaginatively described and unfolds before the reader, as it does before the race’s contestants, one unusual country after another. However, it’s the interpersonal relationships that make the characters so endearing. The web of romance, rivalry, and respect that develops between Devaire, Stornzof and v’Alisante is wonderfully developed through the novel, as each character ends up forcing the other to confront his or her own prejudices and personal shortcomings. Can Devaire reconcile her own sense of morality with her ambitious attempt to win her independence? Is Stornzof’s code of honor stronger than his sense of duty? Can v’Alisante overcome his traditional upbringing and accept Devaire’s independent nature?  Which one will win Devaire’s heart? And what will happen at the end — for unless Devaire can win the race and then steel herself to seduce the secret of the Sentient Fire from randy King Miltzin, her country and every other will fall to the might of the Grewzian Imperium.

The Grand Ellipse is a thoroughly satisfying adventure story, combining magic, technology, and romance. I highly recommend it.

Other steampunk-friendly books:

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist

The Dark Volume
by Gordon Dahlquist
The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips

Gaslamp or Steampunk?

Steam EngineAs I began reading through “steampunkish” books to review on this site, I realized that it was going to become necessary to differentiate between two very similar genres, steampunk and gaslamp.  In everyday discussions of books or movies, it’s quite likely that we’ll use the two terms interchangeably; however, when precision is needed (as in a book review), there’s merit in drawing the two apart with more exactitude.

Both steampunk and gaslamp works share a Victorian(esque) technological level and overall social sensibility, although they may be set in the historical past, on an alternate Earth, or in a fantasy world. To count as steampunk or gaslamp, I’d argue that the works must not have been actually produced in the Victorian period — the genres are retrospective — and they should contain some sort of speculative element to differentiate them from, for example, straightforward romances or mysteries set in the Victorian period.

I argued in my earlier essays (politics and ideology) that when considering steampunk, it’s useful to keep in mind its two parts: “steam,” which refers to its Victorian aesthetic, with an emphasis on Victorian technology and industry, and  “punk,” which refers to its oppositional or critical message, usually with dystopian overtones. These two terms establish the boundaries between steampunk and gaslamp: Speculative works that possess a Victorian aesthetic but do not make technology or industry central to their plot and/or do not offer any sort of social or political critique relevant to the modern world are best referred to as “gaslamp” rather than “steampunk.”

Thus, the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett and others, which are set in an alternate world that combines magic and an extremely Victorian culture and level of technology, are best described as gaslamp fantasies. Although the stories mention Victorian technologies, the technologies are not significant or central elements of the plot — on the contrary, the ways in which magic supplements or replaces technology is more critical to the series. Similarly, although the works include political intrigue and tension — Lord Darcy is the chief investigator for the Duke of Normandy — they offer relatively little cultural or political critique relevant to today’s world.

On the other hand, The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is thoroughly steampunk. Set on an alternate Earth in which Charles Babbage’s difference engines are used to run 19th century England, the novel explores the social and political implications of a much earlier historical shift from an industrial to an information society and presents a dystopian view of the 1990s that resonates with real-world concerns about privacy issues. Technology — and its effects on the social order — are central themes within the novel.

Of course, between these two poles lies a vast sea of quasi-Victorian speculative fiction that ought to provide fans and scholars with plenty of room for debate. How central of a role must technology or industry take to make a work steampunk? How heavy-handed or relevant of a sociopolitical critique must a steampunk novel present? What if a novel’s technology is so advanced that it’s almost magical, such as in Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters? Is there room in steampunk for “magic” at all, or must that word be shunned entirely?

I’m looking forward to hearing the arguments.

(EDIT 2011: The term “steampulp” might be preferable to “steampunk” when describing works that are primarily gaslamp and include nonideologically critical elements associated with the steampunk genre.)

(Photo courtesy of StockXchng)

Does Steampunk Have Politics?

Anima by Dany & DanyThe publication of Anima, by Italian manga team Dany & Dany, couldn’t help but get my attention — steampunk boys’ love? Yes, please.

But Anima isn’t steampunk fiction in the most traditional sense, which, along with my own work on a Clockwork Heart sequel, has led me to think through what, exactly, determines whether something is “steampunk.” This isn’t really a review of Anima; my thoughts will range far beyond the content of this slender volume of manga. But don’t worry. I’ll return to it, eventually, if that’s why you decided to read this article.

Steampunk is a genre — or an aesthetic, or a cultural movement, or a lifestyle — that its aficionados have been struggling to explain for some time. As Justice Stewart said about obscenity, we’re hard-pressed to define it, but we know it when we see it.

So, what should we be looking for?

The most easily identifiable attributes of steampunk is the Victorian aesthetic implied by the prefix “steam-.”  Steampunk references Victorian technology and quotes Victorian decor; it delights in recycling antiques and rethinking modernity.

Why? Let’s take, for a moment, Jules Verne’s description of the library on Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus: “High pieces of furniture, of black violet ebony inlaid with brass, supported upon their wide shelves a great number of books uniformly bound. They followed the shape of the room, terminating at the lower part in huge divans, covered with brown leather, which were curved, to afford the greatest comfort.” Just a few paragraphs later we glimpse “a little brazier, which was supported upon an elegant bronze stem,” and then walk into a museum with “a luminous ceiling, decorated with light arabesques” that is filled with great works of art.

Now, compare Verne’s description of the Nautilus to the interior of a contemporary submarine.

Which would you prefer?

Stephen Segal’s essay, “Five Thoughts On the Popularity of Steampunk,” captured the steampunk aficionado’s preferences in the lolspeak declaration:

THE FUTURE. UR DOIN IT WRONG.

Steampunk is a quintessentially postmodern movement that seeks to mesh contemporary style and technology with handcrafted Victorian beauty and quality, as characterized by the movement’s preference for brass, wood, glass, and leather. Complexity is preferred to simplicity, ornament to minimalism. In movies, fiction, roleplay, and fashion, steampunk shares certain generic icons and themes that speak to an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the brilliant future that humanity imagined for itself in the 1800s.

We see this nostalgia in Anima. Dany & Dany’s art is highly detailed, with lavish attention spent on the details of neoVictorian garments, furniture, and backgrounds. The setting is a world that combines androids and virtual reality with Victorian fashion and decor, and the story includes a variety of retro, though not exactly Victorian, technological moments, like presenting a handwritten check, riding in a vintage motorcar, and watching a recording displayed within a rococo frame.  Anima depicts an ornate, steampunk future: the future as it was imagined in the past and is informed by the present.

Steam-, then, is the aesthetic half of the steampunk movement. But what of the other half?

The aspect of steampunk that is most often overlooked is the sociopolitical ideology characterized by suffix “-punk.”

Punk ideology embraces anarchy and individualism, rebellion and free thought. The first fiction genre to adopt the -punk suffix, cyberpunk, featured political and social dystopias in which antiheroic hackers struggled against powerful megacorporations.  The genre did evolve its own aesthetic over time — mirrorshades and black dusters, body modification and street fashion — but it never abandoned its central theme of individual struggle against an oppressive society.

Such sociopolitical commentary hasn’t been as prevalent in steampunk. Although the do-it-yourself ethic of punk has been retained by steampunk, which cherishes a literary history of mad scientists and crackpot inventors and attracts its share of engineers, designers, and costumers, there is less of a sense that the steampunk movement is innately oppositional. True, in the broadest sense, DIY opposes mass marketing and consumerism, but thus far anticonsumerism hasn’t emerged as a unifying theme for the movement.

Does steampunk really need to take a political position? Well, -punk does imply some kind of political engagement or opposition, even if it’s to extol anarchy. The term splatterpunk, for example, has been replaced by extreme horror, in part because the genre’s high-octane gore factor never translated into a coherent statement about society or politics. Splatterpunk wasn’t oppositional; it was just excessive. And a similar fate threatens to replace steampunk with gaslamp fantasy. So if steampunk is to warrant its -punk, it had better take a stand.

Fortunately, steampunk does have potential models for oppositional politics within the literature it most often cites as inspirational.

Take, for example, Captain Nemo. Nemo means “no one,” in itself a thought-provoking name for a potentially archetypical figure, suggesting as it does both nobody and everybody. Captain Nemo was an anti-nationalist humanist who helped oppressed peoples throw off the chains of their colonial rulers; he was so adamant about his beliefs that he refused to set foot on any dry land claimed by a sovereign nation. In addition, he was highly educated, musical, multilingual, compassionate, and self-disciplined.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him becoming an iconic figure for the steampunk movement.

Captain Nemo’s steampunk, for example, would be an eclectic movement that scorns the drawing of boundaries and the valorization of national, cultural, and/or religious separatism. Captain Nemo did his utmost to avoid taking lives, and he never hesitated to risk his own life for one of his companions. The enclosed world of his submarine was a metaphor for the larger world above him, and he comprehended the interdependence of everyone on the Nautilus in a way he felt the warring, oppressive nations above did not. The Nautilus‘ motto was Mobilis in mobili, or “moving in movement,” and it moved constantly through the ocean, heedless of political boundaries.

Similarly, Captain Nemo’s steampunk would value the common humanity of every soul in every culture and feel free to take what’s best from all historical periods, nations, cultures, and/or religions, combining disparate elements in new and inventive ways guided above all by a desire to (re)create the kind of golden future about which humanity once dreamed — the steampunk ideal. What steampunk is doing aesthetically, bringing to life the charming and fantastic, can also be done politically.

Nemo’s steampunk would also be a movement that shunned imperialism, perhaps especially cultural imperialism. Steampunk doesn’t seek to appropriate and colonize other movements; instead, it allows itself to be informed by those movements — it shares interests with cyberpunks, punks, goths, Lolitas, anime fans, manga fans, geeks, nerds, engineers, programmers, dandies, metalheads, and others. It prefers fusion to domination, recycling to consumerism, and individualism to authority.

And, finally, Captain Nemo’s steampunk would be one that cherished form as well as function, one that combined beauty with technology and sought to create living and working environments that were both welcoming and efficient. Just as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus was a miracle of engineering and design, so should be the world in which the steampunk seeks to live.

From an ideological point of view, Captain Nemo would be an especially provocative sociopolitical figurehead for the steampunk movement because, despite his European manners and tastes, he was an Indian deeply opposed to the British Raj. Steampunk’s Victorian aesthetic links it, rather unfortunately, to the colonialist British Empire, with all the racism and oppression it embodied. Adopting Nemo as an ideological icon would complicate and moderate that linkage — Nemo was a member of royalty but supported the impoverished; he was born in India but educated in Europe. He symbolizes the complexity of life in a multicultural society; the tensions of hybridity and the advantages and abuses of class. Part idealist, part despot, Nemo is a nuanced, contradictory figure open to numerous interpretations and usages, just like steampunk itself.

But perhaps Captain Nemo is too extreme a character to become steampunk’s iconic hero; perhaps freethinking Liedenbrock, certain the world is hollow despite the ridicule of his peers, is the movement’s hero of choice; or perhaps never-say-die Phileas Fogg embodies the values steampunk seeks to emulate. I would suggest the movement not adopt H.G. Wells’ insane scientists Griffin or Dr. Moreau, however, or his rather ineffectual Time Traveler. No doubt many fans of steampunk might vote for Wild, Wild West‘s James West, but gadgets aside, he was a government agent, and there’s not much -punk involved in working for President Ulysses S. Grant. Finally, we might also turn to any of the characters in contemporary steampunk works, of which there are too many to list here, for an ideological archetype that might symbolize the movement.

Anima (I told you I’d get back to it eventually!), like steampunk itself, fails to provide a strongly oppositional political message. Now, to be sure, Anima is primarily boys’ love, and boys’ love isn’t exactly known for its sociopolitical gravitas. And, as boys’ love, Anima succeeds quite well. But this article isn’t about boys’ love; it’s about steampunk. And to the extent that Anima has been characterized as steampunk boys’ love, its political content lends itself to analysis.

Anima does, in fact, present us with a world that has a touch of dystopian -punk. It’s a world in which dancer Danya Arseniev’s manager, Nikolaj Zaharov, has defied the law to put Danya onstage but, while he resists authority in one context, he cannot help but assert it in another — over Danya. It’s a world in which freelance investigative journalist Patrick Owens, like one of cyberpunk’s keyboard cowboys, seeks to free information into the mediasphere — in this case the truth behind government coverups and black market dealing. And it’s a world in which the peripheral character inventor/programmer Miranda is confronting questions about happiness versus freewill that will affect Danya’s and Patrick’s lives.

But Anima‘s story never moves beyond the individual — it is, at its core, an erotic romance, and it never expands its scope to address the broader implications of each character’s actions. While Danya’s career directly defies existing legislation, his story arc ends up being a one-on-one conflict with his manager, who wants to keep him from seeing Patrick, rather than a political confrontation with the larger system that overshadows his desire to dance. Danya’s ultimate victory is to win the freedom to love, rather than to overturn the legislation that would keep him offstage.

If Danya’s secret were equated with his homosexuality (which, for the record, is not a sociopolitical problem in Anima‘s storyworld), then, at the end of the story, Danya would still be in the closet.

Which is quite the Victorian aesthetic, indeed.

And perhaps that’s why steampunk as a movement has, thus far, avoided addressing the question of its own politics. After all, reserve and deference were key elements in Victorian etiquette, and punk is quite the opposite: would it really be good manners to, for example, publish a steampunk manifesto? But if steampunk is ever going to deserve its provocative suffix, it needs to offer more than simply nostalgia for a retro dream that never was. It needs to suggest ways in which we, as a group, can revive and rethink that lost ideal.

***
 
NOTE: For examples of the steampunk aesthetic, see The Steampunk Workshop, which specializes in technological reinvention; Flickr’s Steampunk Fashion group, which demonstrates the retro luxe of steampunk outfitting; and The Steampunk Home, which features interior decorating with a Victorian-tech edge. The steampunk aesthetic in music can be heard in works by Abney Park. Haven’t ever met Captain Nemo offscreen? Meet the original mystery man in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island.NOTE 2: See also Mike Perschon for more about Jules Verne and definitions of steampunk.