Westerfield- Leviathan

Welcome to my last Steampunk book review. In some ways I think I saved the best for last, but I am very happy to see this project finally get put to bed.

Leviathan is a YA novel set in the opening days of an alternate WWI.

SteamPunk Factor- 

Techno-Fantasy: 28 Darwin discovering DNA and creating hybrid creatures to serve the empire? The backbone of the  German war machine being diesel powered mecha? Not that I'd believe that any of it were possible as envisioned, but I almost wish it were.

Neo-Victorianism: 25 As I said, I didn't for a second believe it was possible, but Westerfeld starting the book off with a young woman suspended above London beneath a lighter-than-air jellyfish? The book's dialog and descriptions made me feel like I was looking through the eyes of a lower class midshipman, and the scion of Austro-Hungary. It wasn't as all pervasive as Carriger's immersion, but still very well done.

RetroFuturism: 28 Without judgement (at least from the outside) Westerfeld paints a world of ubiqitious bio-genetic constructs and exoskeletal machines, set in 1914. A fanciful glimspe into both the past and the future. That's retrofuturism in a nutshell.

Other: 8 Wow.
Total: 89%

Totally sucked me in. After Christopher Moore's Fluke I didn't think I would enjoy another book with pervasive bio-fabrications. However Darwinist creatures fascinate me. And then the Clankers, well their machines pull me back to my teen fascination with Aura Battler Dunbine. (there's not much overlap, but something feels like  ABD) Of all of the current Steampunk authors, Westerfeld is probably the only book which grabbed me enough to want to buy the next book immediately.


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Cherie Priest: Boneshaker

One of the three lauded torchbearers of the current steampunk milieu, I follow Cherie Priest on Twitter, and have eagerly listened to a podcasts where she talks about her approach to writing and her history. And yet I approached Boneshaker with ambivalence.   I'm not sure why, perhaps it's my own distrust of anything that has popular success? However within the first chapter, with it's sweeping changes to the nineteenth century American landscape, and ample early references to Alaska I was won over, mostly. It was a rocky start, but then something really hooked me.

First for the Steampunk factor:

Techno-Fantasy: 30 Boneshaker is the epitomy of Steampunk tech. Dirigibles, underground digging machines, powered armour, mechanical limbs. It's in there.

Neo-Victorianism: 12 There were structural issues that pulled me out my suspension of disbelief. I really felt like this story could have been told just as easily in a modern, future, or post-apocalyptic setting. There was nothing that made it HAVE to be steampunk. First this book took place in the 1880's. The Seattle of the 1880's was practically a village, what made it the city it is today was the Alaska Gold Rush. The book takes care of that by having the Russians discover gold in Alaska much earlier than it would have. So Seattle is built up much earlier, but it was built exactly like it did get built. I had a hard time getting over that. West Coast cities were just built differently in the 1850's -  70's than they were at the turn of the century. But my minds eye kept going over area I actually know and tripping because they are to familiar as modern not 19th c. features. Now as a defense for the book, I have been told that in the author's forward this was addressed as an intentional artistic decision to give readers a touchstone. Had I read this initially it might have been better disposed to some of  these issues.

Retro-Futurism: 28 While thinking about this I began to wonder if Neo-Victorianism and Retro-Futurism cannot be at loggerheads. Many of the more interesting elements were backwards mirrors of the present onto the 19th century. That the civil war had been going on for decades, that there was a rampant drug problem, and that it was fueled by and fueled the government's war machine all were fascinating explorations.

Bonus: 3 Alaska 6 Novel use of Underworld descent.

Total: 79

But the thing that really got me interested in the book was as Briar readied herself to go inside the wall I idly thought... "This feels like Inanna's Descent into the Underworld".

For those not familiar with the Sumerian myth here's a synopsis:

Inanna was a goddess of life and fertility. She desired to go into the underworld to mourn the death of her Brother-in-law. Her sister, the queen of the underworld, didn't want to allow it. Inanna arrayed herself in the 7  trappings of civilization, and went to the underworld anyway.

Her sister had the 7 gates of the underworld closed and Inanna could only pass them after she removed an article of clothing. After the seventh and final gate, she stood naked before her sister who had her killed.

Meanwhile back at home, Inanna's loyal friends offer up prayers and send creatures to save her. They bring her back to life and she returns to the world only to be told that she must send someone back to the underworld in her place. After the suggestions that her most loyal friends, and then her sons will be taken, she settles on her indifferent husband and has him dragged back to the underworld.

At its base, this novel was about a mother with a past who had to face that past  and go into the bowels of the earth to recover her son. As I read I wondered if Priest intentionally mirrored Inanna's Decent into the Underworld or perhaps another Underworld myth like Orpheus or Ceres and Prosperina.

Inanna's motivations are different than Briar's. Briar only wants to retrieve her son, but especially with the ever present question of Briar's dead father and husband, Dr. Blue, there is a similarity.

At every step along the way, like Innana, Briar had to leave something important, or have it stripped away, and at the final confrontation her life and sanity were in danger.  And when it is over, and time to return from the underworld, the truth about what happened to Dr. Blue  is revealed. And Briar leaves him, finally in the underworld.


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Gail Carriager: Soulless

I have confession to make. I read this one a while ago. Even worse, it was out of order. After finishing my course of Steampunk's  foundational scientific romance, I was burned out. I loved Wells and I came to respect, then because of my middle son, love Verne. But the others, well there's a reason that the edisonade didn't last. I took a break, and listened to J.D. Sawyer's Down from Ten.

DF10 is a fascinating story that defies categorization. To tell the truth, I'm not entirely certain why I picked it. I had heard it was science fiction, erotic, controversial, and interesting.  (But I digress, Sawyer's podcasts are a topic for another review post.) Anyway, smack dab in the middle of the DF10 podcast is a full cast audio dramatization of the first chapter of Soulless.

The riotous first chapter was enough to reenergize me for this steampuk lit project.   I quickly reading of Morlock Night, which was, by comparison, tedious, and then the Adventures of Langton St. Ives (not tedious), and couldn't take it, I had to read the rest.

So here's the Steampunk Factor:

Technofantasy: 23 This one is hard. Soulless' tech is low key,  oft revealed in conversation rather than encountered directly. This does a great deal to provide a sense of the 19th c. wonder at the marvels of technology that at least drew me to Steampunk. It's there it's amazing, but it's not everywhere, and it allows people to marvel in a way they couldn't if immersed.

Neo-Victorianism: 30 Attitudes, descriptions, and language in this book were spot on, I don't think I ever suspended my disbelief.

Retro-futurism: 27 The retrofuturism in Soulless is cultural. While never stepping outside the bounds of actual 19th c. examples, like the Elizabeth Bennet, the New Woman, or Oscar Wilde, issues of women's and sexual identity rights are brought to the fore.

Intangibles: 8 I give Soulless an 8 for just being a romp.

Total: 88/100 Pretty damn high.

Tech is neither ubiquitous, or over the top. But it is definitely self-consciously steampunk. From the early appearance of goggles, and far off glimpses of dirigibles, to underground laboratories; Soulless delivers that in spades. But it is also quite more. It has aspects of the classic 19th c. comedy of manners, and then also supernatural elements like vampires an werewolves.  One of the fascinating points with the vampires and werewolves is the whole alternate history that Carriger has created to explain the presence of supernatural creatures in British society.

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Plans for this summer….

So January is speeding by and I can't quite believe it's going so fast. We've been solidifying our plans for the year and there are some big changes in store.

First, I'm not going to be doing any reenactment this year. Instead I'm going to dedicate my time to metalwork, and the three iron pours going this summer. I'll miss it, but I think it's a better use this year.

Second, we'll be tearing into the kitchen and refinishing the floor on the main floor of our house. Another big undertaking.

Finally, the big one, we're going to be doing the BIG PUSH to self suffiency. We will probably not be getting there, but laying out zones, and rotation schemes, and tearing out lawns for gardens and fields will be a big part of things.

Wish us luck...


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Winter’s Tale

Winter's Tale was interesting to me. When I encountered it I read some reviews and felt it was definitely one for my list. I added it as the last of my 'foundational' or pre-2007 works.  When I showed my list to some people they told me that this book wasn't Steampunk. I balked.  The review called it steampunk, it seemed to have all of the elements.  So I read it, and... well... Well, it took me six months to write this review, because I kept going back and forth. Lets start with the Steampunk Factor.

Steampunk Factor:

Technofantasy: 15 This is hard. Is Winter's Tale a technofantasy? Is Magic Realism fantasy? In technofantasy  magic-like effects are realized through the veneer of technology.  Magic may be present, but it is a separate and non-overlapping magisteria. It is like pre-prequel Star Wars. There is technology that does impossible things. And there is magic, or the force, that does other impossible things, but they are not the same things.  In Winter's Tale there is magic. There are machines that realize magical ends. But there is no distinction made.

Neo-Victorianism: 15 Helprin's world is not our world. In some ways it's Ayn Rand's world with mysticism. That is not really fair. Helprin is no objectivist, he is a 19th c. style liberal.  It is set in early 20th c. New York, and in a left turn modern day, with people stuck in a world where many 19th century ills were never righted, and places like the five points continued into the end of the millenium. His characters and the story pull me in and make me suspend disbelief, at least most of them do. His ridiculous characters, straw men proxies for hippies and Rupert Murdoch respectively, ruin the story whenever they are inserted.

Retrofuturism: 25 It doesn't look to a Retro-future. But to a degraded present and a hope for better in a different way. It is set in early 20th c. New York, and in a left turn modern day, with people stuck in a world where many 19th century ills were never righted, and places like the five points continued into the end of the millenium. The future is retro- but not a shiny utopia.

Other: I loved it, and could add points for enjoyment, but really there are no intangibles that enhance this books Steampunkiness.

Total: 60 - marginally Steampunk

I had just finished Morlock Night when I read Winter's Tale, and I initially argued that Winter's Tale stands better on Steampunk grounds that Morlock Night. Why is Morlock Night steampunk, while Winter's Tale is not?

Both books are urban fantasies taking place in 19th/early 2oth century settings, dealing with immortal/ancient beings who wield mystic and technological power (more so with Winter's Tale than Morlock Night). Winter's Tale is more in love with the machine than Morlock Night, which save for two artifacts, the submarine and the time machine, is more concerned with pulling details from 'London Poor' than any form of tech. Winters Tale is a love poem to the machine and the transformative power with which it can lift a person.

 Winter's Take is more in love with the machine than any other novel I have read recently. It is in love with it as a symbol of perfection, it is in love with it as a means of salvation, and it is in love with it as a means of doing work. But oddly it is not a Steampunk love. A steampunk's love of the machine is that of an artist finding beauty in cogs and oil, it is the love of the obsessed mechanic or inventor. WT's love is that of able craftsman, and the mystic, I was surprised but it's a different love.

So is Winter's Tale Steampunk? Yes, I think it is, but it's a different ride. It is in much the way that 'The Prestige' is steampunk, introspective. It scored low because the elements are mixed up, but it's going to be of definite interest to steampunks and is worth a read.

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Adventures of Langdon St. Ives

Technofantasy: 35
Improbable science, that is internally consistent. Time travel, phrenology, homunculi, alchemy, good stuff.

Neo-Victorianism: 28
This was the first steampunk novel I've read that didn't pull me out of the 19th century. (Or in some cases, the 19-teens.)

Retrofuturism: 27

Miscellaneous: 5
Five points for absolute improbable zany silliness. If you want to get the mantra that Steampunk doesn't take itself seriously read this. The other 5 in miscellaneous I donated to technofantasy.


Wow, 95%, and deservedly so. The Langdon St. Ives stories are a blast. And they are all different. 'The Adventures' is a compilation and ranges from Keystone Kops style chases to dark meditations on evil, nature vs.  nurture, zombism, and time travel. All of the stories are over the top, and definitely not predictable.

I find that suspension of disbelief is very important, especially with steampunk. If something pulls me out of the 19th century feel, I quickly lose interest. Things that pull me out are numerous. Among them, are people being to modern, or treated condescendingly for not being modern enough, the use of to modern language, or descriptions of places that did not exist in period.

I was never pulled out of the nineteenth with Langdon St. Ives. To the contrary, little things constantly pulled me further in. The Ape Box Affair reminded me of the action of a silent film. The Idol's Eye gave a delicious view into 19th c. imperial and racial hubris without looking down on the actors themselves.

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the 32 Cravats according to Mr. Hollingshead

John Hollingshead was an actor  and writer, who wrote this piece some time before 1883.  It is a comic piece that largly paraphrases LeBlanc, written inthe style of an Octegenarian dandy, decrying the slovenliness of the young. The major difference between this an LeBlanc is that Hollingshead anglicises the names.

  1. Gordian
  2. Oriental
  3. American
  4. Horse Collar
  5. Sentimental
  6. Byron
  7. Cascade
  8. Bergami
  9. Ball
  10. Mathematical
  11. Irish
  12. Marrate
  13. Gastronomical
  14. Hunting
  15. Diana
  16. English
  17. Independence
  18. Portmanteau -- Valise
  19. Shell --
  20. Travelling Cravat
  21. Colin
  22. Fountain
  23. Broken Heart
  24. Lazy Woman
  25. Romantic
  26. Fidelity
  27. Talma
  28. Italian
  29. Full Alehouse Quart
  30. Diplomatic
  31. Russian
  32. Jesuit


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Revising Booklist: Dropping Titles

I'm running out of steam. I'll be dropping the following titles from my reading list:

  • Michael Moorcock: Warlord of the Air
  • James Powers: Anubis Gates
  • Philip Reeve: Larklight
  • Theodore Judson: Fitzpatrick’s War
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Morlock Night

The first neo-victorian novel by the man who coined the phrase 'steampunk', I had high hopes for Morlock Night. Having read Time Machine the summer before last, this book presented a three-fold opportunity. It allowed me to see how Arthuriana would do in a Steampunk setting. It gave me another unauthorized sequel to a Wells book for comparison (see my earlier review of Edison's Conquest of Mars). Finally it gave me a view of the original conception of steampunk.

Technofantasy: 18 This one is hard. With the exception of the original Time Machine, all of the tech here isn't even crypto-magical, it's outright magic.

Neo-Victorianism: 15 I have been mulling over how to deal with Neo-Victorianism now that I'm out of actual novels from the victorian era. I finally came to the realization, that this factor can be summed up to how well the book creates a suspension of disbelief. Does a book convince me that this is an alternate 19th century, or something like it?  It came as a shock to me that this book did not. Everything felt modern.

Retrofuturism: 22 This is where this book shines, it takes  a real Victorian novel, and extrapolates. I see hints of Robert E. Howard, Nazism, and wrapped in a idea of a defense of Christendom.

Miscellaneous: 8 for arthuriana

Total:  71%

It's actually hard to talk about this book without giving everything away.

Morlock Nights starts at the end of Wells', The Time Machine, literally. It kicks off in the study, and follows characters from the book on their way home. From there it pulls in Arthuriana, Atlantis,  and a dozen other things.

Now as for how this stacks up against another Well's homage. It's not in the same class. While it feels like a junior work, Jeter's skill is much greater than that of Serviss. I am genuinely curious about what happens to the characters, and how the multiple plotlines can be finally woven together.

Finally this book gave me an fascinating view into nascent steampunk with many assumptions of what steampunk should be getting tossed out the window. This feels like a junior novel, but shows real creativity and belongs on every steampunk's bookshelf.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Finally the big enchilada. The novel, the movie, the cultural force that everyone points to when trying to describe steampunk. Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I could write five reviews on this, but let's start with the basics.

Steampunk Factor:

Technofantasy: 15 points, Electric engines, steel tolerances, natural science. This is a compendium of scientific knowledge with reasonable extrapolation. Definitely techno, very little fantasy.

Neo-Victorianism: 30 points, Once again, a novel of the 19th century, 30 points.

Retro-futurism: 30 points, This is very much futuristic in 19th century terms, Nemo's craft is amazing and has not yet been equalled by any one  modern submarine. It also features a vision of future exploration, as well as a hope of a better future for the nations and peoples of Earth.

Intangibles: 10 points, For so many reasons. This felt like what I was looking for.

Total: 85/100 85%,  Almost as steamy as Edison's Conquest.

Wow, what a great book. Many thanks to Mike Perschon for suggesting the Completely Restored and Annotated Edition, translated by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter. This was essential for me, because after slogging through edisonades and a fairly tepid translation of Robur the Conqueror, I needed something to renew my interest in this project.

It did. It was long, but I also read this to my seven year old, who now knows more about fish than any child should, and that's after I expunged as much as I could from the  fish lists. ("Dad, you left out the bony fishes in the Mediterranean!" / Frankly, the kid scares me.) But the liveliness of the translation helped.

Everyone already knows the story, or think s that they do. Three men, castaway from their ship, are saved by Cpt. Nemo and the Nautilus and embark on a 42,000 mile journey around the world. But the book ends nothing like the movie, and there are things in the book that I never realized were in it.

Another thing that the annotated edition really helped with was to give an account of the scientific knowledge of the time.  For example, at the time of the writing the existence of Antarctica was theorized but not proven. This never occurred to me.

All in all I can see why Verne inspires, and am happy to have finally read it.







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