With Steampunk becoming the new 'in' thing in the world of literature, hopefully expelling Dark Romance, I thought I would give this anthology a go. It is such a fantastic, atmospheric genre with so many possibilities. It is an aesthetic that has influenced directors such as Hayao Miyazaki and Guillermo Del Toro. Even Back to the Future Part III can be considered as steampunk. Sadly, some of the stories published in this book are not the best examples and some barely qualify as belonging to the genre. Editors Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant could have short-listed a better selection. The good stories among them raise the overall rating.
The stories are as follows, chronologically:
"Some Fortunate Future Day" by Cassandra Clare
A girl left alone by her father during an unspecified war struggles to fill time as the household robots go about their business with decreasing competence as there is no one to maintain them. She longs for company, for love, despite not fully understanding what it is. When an injured young soldier lands in her back yard she nurses him back to health, hoping for a Florence Nightingale effect. When her efforts fail she uses her father's time travel device to give it another shot. A bit of a depressing story, though it did create an interesting world in its concise length.
"The Last Ride of the Glory Girls" by Libba Bray
In a old-west setting populated with religious nuts and lower-classes kept docile and obedient with heroin, a young girl goes undercover in an all-teenage girl outlaw gang who have a device that can slow down time. With the device repaired they can rob trains, and this set-up sounds exciting, but nothing ever becomes of it. The story itself is sporadically slowed-down by dull flashbacks on the protagonist's religious history and there's little atmosphere or detail on the environment.
"Clockwork Fagin" by Corey Doctorow
An Oliver Twist kind of story in which unwanted children, mangled, scarred, and limbless thanks to industrial accidents, suffer under the whip of a monstrous master in a Canadian workhouse. When the master is killed in self-defence the kids make it look like his still alive in some weird steampunk version of Weekend at Bernies and use this resurrection at their ticket to party and live free. It's a good story, though the humor is darkly grim.
"Seven Days Beset by Demons" by Shawn Cheng
A comic-strip depicting the seven deadly sins set across a week in the life of a toymaker who falls in love with a woman who is out of his league. It's concise and clever, but it barely qualifies for steampunk.
"Hand in Glove" by Ysabeau S. Wilce
An honest cop in a corrupt department fights to prove the innocence of a homeless man arrested for murder. I didn't like the confusing present tense, the difficult story, or preposterous revelations. It's like a cross between Serpico, The Black Dahlia, and Frankenstein. There's not much of a steampunk element either, and the detail and description is disappointingly thin.
"The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor" by Delia Sherman
A new Baronet moves into a crumbling manor house with his automatons and restores it with the help of a local girl. Debtors threaten him with foreclosure unless he coughs up loads of dough that he doesn't have, so with the help of a spunky ghost they look for a legendary lost cache of treasure. The only parts of the story that really have any traction are the scenes with the ghost, though it is a nice yarn.
"Gethsemane" by Elizabeth Knox
On a South Pacific island a community lives off the power of the earth and steam in the soil from giant volcano looming over them. A young girl claiming to be a witch and her 'zombie' assistant get involved in a muddled plot that is poorly written and confusingly presented. There's a great story here fighting to get out but Elizabeth Knox botches it at every opportunity.
"The Summer People" by Kelly Link
A great story (for the most part) about teenage girl who is stuck at home with a crippling illness. A semi-outcast girl (and a lesbian for no particular reason) looks after her while dad is away at some Jesus camp and they develop a tenuous, if hardly intimate, relationship. She tells her about a nearby house where apparently supernatural folks known as 'the summer people' live. It's here, in the second half, that the story kinda loses it. The Summer People themselves are confusingly described and we never really know the hows and whys. Then, at the end, the story sets up two subplots which are never properly resolved and goes off on a tangent before an abrupt finish. Really good until the halfway mark. It also barely qualifies as steampunk.
"Peace in Our Time" by Gareth Nix
Probably the most high-profile author in this collection, but certainly not one of the best stories. The mythology of the setting seems to be perfectly established in his own head but isn't on paper. It's a brief, two-header with an old man slowly remembering that he is responsible for killing off most of the humans on Earth. I barely understood it. A lot of it comes across as gibberish. If this is what Nix is all about I think I will steer clear of his other works.
"Nowhere Fast" by Christopher Rowe
In the future the world has been ravaged by a war stemming from the inevitable loss of fossil fuels. With bridges, tunnels, and highways broken America is reduced to isolated communities living on recycled scraps from the previous generations. A young girl longs to see the ocean, or anywhere other than her landlocked, middle-of-nowhere community until one day a mysterious stranger comes rolling in, carrying a petroleum-powered car in his transporter - a banned technology. It's a really good story, but I'm sure it could have had a better ending.
"Finishing School - A Colonial Adventure" by Kathleen Jennings
A 'graphic short' featuring two girls in a boarding school run by women who like to crush dreams and aspirations. One of the girls wants to prove that aviation is possible without zeplinns or lighter than air designs. She succeeds, and then the story ends with the tease of a Part II which is not featured in this book. I liked this story despite the abrupt end.
"Steam Girl" by Dylan Horrocks
A rather downbeat story about 2 outcast teenagers in a dull American town who develop feelings for each other through the creation of their own steampunk characters 'Steam Girl' and 'Rocket Boy'. I suppose in this sense it's a sort of metafictional story, but the fiction within fiction isn't really that engaging. I do however like how they escape from their humdrum, depressing lives by living in their own fantasy worlds regardless of the bullying that they receive. Overall, one of the better stories in the book.
"Everything Amiable and Obliging" by Holly Black
In an upper class household a young girl falls in love with her robotic dance instructor, angering her family as they need her to wed into wealth in order to save them from her father's gambling debts. As the robot is programmed to please her its 'love' sort of infects the mainframe of the house and in turn the 'house' loves the girl back. Her cousin Sofia (later referred to as Sofie, cryptically) objects, then doesn't. It has an intriguing set-up but does nothing much with it. Top marks for the idea though.
"The Oracle Machine" by MT Anderson
Set in Ancient Rome this story feels very alien in a steampunk universe. I found it hard to follow and found little reason to care about characters that I could not keep track of. It opens rather well, but quickly loses all momentum. It's a bad story to close the book on.
Unlikely to win over anyone who is new to the genre, and not likely to please current fans. This anthology is stuck in the middle thanks to the irregular quality of the stories.