Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fantastically rich and strange indeed....

4 out of 5 stars

Like most anthologies, the stories within Steampunk! fall into three categories: Fantastic, Mediocre, and Bloody Awful. I will give the authors and editors credit, though, in that, for the most part, they're not your average steampunk. Not only are most of the stories not set in the traditional Victorian London milieu, the stories have settings ranging from Appalachia, Canada, New Zealand, Wales and beyond, from ancient Rome to futures both bleak and fantastical.

Here's a breakdown of those stories which I feel fall into the first and third categories I described above. First, the Fantastic:
--The best, most stand-out story of the entire collection was the very last one presented. Oracle Engine by M.T. Anderson concerns a steampunk-flavored ancient Rome (so creative!). The story could've easily come off as cheesy or hokey, but the storytelling, along with Anderson's incredible attention to even the smallest historical detail, makes for a riveting tale. In fact, I really wish Anderson could find a way to turn his short story into a novel or series of novels. His steampunk Rome is a city I would love to revisit.
--The Last Ride of the Glory Girls by Libba Bray. Set in the wild, wild West (kinda; when you read it, you'll understand) and revolving around a gang of girl train robbers and the Pinkerton men (and girl) chasing them, this is a rip-roaring train ride of a story. A well-written and super fun tale.
--Clockwork Fagin by Cory Doctorow. As its name implies, this is a riff on the whole Oliver/orphanage/mistreated waifs theme, with a deliciously inventive and satisfying comeuppance for the miserable orphan master. Richly detailed and immensely satisfying.
--Hand in Glove by Ysabeau S. Wilce. As I was reading the anthology, this was initially my first choice for favorite story. This piece, above almost all others in the compilation, perfectly captures the wild inventiveness and creative storytelling necessary for a successful steampunk tale. Beautifully told, with vivid imagery, this is C.S.I meets steampunk and it's stupendous.
--The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor by Delia Sherman. A ghost story in a steampunk setting. Now that's creative! Set in a manor house in the Welsh countryside, this is a charming little tale with perhaps not that much depth, but nevertheless entertaining for what it is.
--Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks. A wonderful story-within-a-story revolving around the familiar alienation/high school-is-hell theme, with superbly entertaining results. Steam Girl is a heroine for a new generation and I would love to see more of her adventures (not to mention Rocket Boy's), especially in a graphic novel, a medium big enough and colorful enough to contain Steam Girl's exuberance.
--Everything Amiable & Obliging by Holly Black. One of the few stories set in London (in fact, I believe there was only one other story with a London-setting), this is a sugared violet, petit four treat of a confection. That's not to say it's lightweight, however. The story delves into the murky realms of what it is exactly which makes a person a person. A delightful tale with unexpected depths.

The Bloody Awful:
--Seven Days Beset by Demons by Shawn Cheng. A short story told in graphic novel-fashion. Now, I understand the steampunk angle as the M.C. (a vendor) peddles little clockwork vignettes. But the story itself is poor. Yeah, yeah, I get the whole 'missed opportunities due to stupid self-indulgence'; that still doesn't mean the story was done well or entertaining, which it wasn' all. Plus, the ending was abrupt and not satisfying, not to mention the artwork was childish and not at all creative, in my opinion.
--Gethsemane by Elizabeth Knox. First off, I don't see how this qualifies as steampunk. Other than a mention of some steam works and an airship (neither of which are all that uncommon in real life, needing the fantastical touches of clockworks, automatons and other creative additions in order to make them steampunk), the story has no connection with the genre. Secondly, as it concerns a witch and a zombie, the story belongs more to the straight fantasy genre, as there's no steampunk element to either of the two characters, explaining their condition or motivations. As to the plot, it's nonsensical and pointless, with no clear direction. On a technical level, the writing is fine, quite lyrical; it's just wasted on a poor story.
--The Summer People by Kelly Link. Now, to be perfectly honest, this story isn't Bloody Awful; however, it is another story which really doesn't belong in this anthology as there's nothing steampunk about it, which is why I'm including it in this category. Apart from the mention of some clockwork mechanical toys, which aren't inherently steampunk unless placed in context, the tale revolves around fairies. Appalachian fairies, but fairies nonetheless. Unlike the story above, however, this one is actually quite good, with excellent writing and a creative plot. Had I encountered it in a fantasy- or fairy-themed anthology, I'd be singing its praises as a real winner. However, steampunk it ain't. It just doesn't belong.
--Finishing School by Kathleen Jennings. Yes, this one is steampunk and has the elements of that genre in abundance. What it doesn't have is a storyline. What little story exists is confusing, disjointed, and just plain hard to follow. Even the fact that the tale contains elements of real-life incidents doesn't help clarify the action. Very poorly done.
--The absolute weakest link of the anthology was the very first story, Some Fortunate Future Day, by Cassandra Clare. Now, I've never had the (pleasure?) of reading any of Clare's books, though I have heard the numerous critics who call her a hack. Judging from this (thankfully short) example, I'd have to say those critics are on to something. A piece of fluff, with apparently very little thought or creativity put into it, I wonder at the editors' decision to include it. For example, the M.C. is named Rose and another girl integral to the story is named Lily. Really? How clever, naming both girls after flowers; that's realistic and, boy howdy! what a stretch of the imagination. The best thing I can say about this piece is that it takes very little time or brain power to get through it. Shallow and insipid.

I have to say, out of the 14 stories contained in Steampunk!, there was a greater-than-average ratio of dreck to gems, for which I'm extremely grateful. Kudos to the editors, for while they could've done better, they also could've done a helluva lot worse.

Read September 29-October 3, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program October 12, 2011

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