Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ghosts By Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers. [Review]

Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense

I find that sometimes the only way I can process an anthology is by reading and evaluating each story individually, and then determining an average score for the work as a whole.  In this case, there were seventeen stories, and each could earn a score of up to five points.  With 85 points available, my final score for this anthology is 61, or an average of 3.59, which I have rounded up to a four star rating in my Goodreads account.  Each story is evaluated below, with the score I gave it, accompanied by my rationale.
I will admit that my score is biased by my disappointment that this collection doesn’t have a much better developed steampunk sensibility.  I understand that steampunk wasn’t the sole focus of the stories that were gathered, but if an editor puts this on the cover then I expect to see these themes and tropes appear.  Instead, I feel like the victim of a bait and switch, where I’m told I’m going to get something, and then feel duped.  All of these stories could be described as supernatural suspense or horror stories, and it doesn’t make sense to me that the steampunk label was applied for what ends up being less than half of the collection.  I feel like this descriptor was added because steampunk is gaining a large following of fans that are hungry for this genre and will eagerly buy this kind of literature.  I am left somewhat angry and baffled that a better anthology wasn't assembled by editors who write in this genre and should know better.
In the stories where the steampunk label does apply, it certainly isn’t because of airships, corsets, or cogs! In these narratives the steampunk is focused within the themes of technology, and the effect technology has on humanity, as well as how this changes the individual or society.  Honestly, I feel the word ‘horror’ belongs on this cover, not ‘steampunk,’ and I wish that this is what the editors had done. I may or may not have purchased the book, but if I had, I would at least feel better about my final decision.  Despite this, there are some fine stories that can be considered steampunk in this anthology, and it is these stories that saved this anthology for me (they've been highlighted in yellow for convenience).

The Iron Shroud (James Morrow):  (This story is 21 pages, and takes place in Germany.)  This story is told through a combination of first person narrative and diary entries, and revolves around a scientist, Jonathan Hobwright, a ‘vibratologist’ who is offered a large amount of money to travel to southwestern Germany to investigate the scientific experiments of a mad scientist. The scientist has killed by his creations, and his family is afraid they will be next.  Will Hobwright be able to free the ‘nonentities,’ or is he the next victim?  
This story explores immortality and the possibility of life after death, especially when death can be controlled by science.  Sadly, the narrative was a bit difficult to follow, which might be the result of a deliberate attempt by the author to have the reader experience Hobwright’s disorientation, but it simply comes across as obscure and frustrating.  The steampunk factor isn’t very great, and is limited to the mad scientist’s machine that he uses to gold plate his victims and transform them into immortal nonentities, or slaves.  I gave this story a 3 star rating for overall steampunk and difficulty of the narrative.
Music, When Soft Voices Die (Peter S. Beagle): (This story 26 pages, and takes place in England.)  Beagle hasn’t written steampunk before, and this first attempt is actually quite good.  This third person omniscient story revolves around four roommates share a home: Vodran (copyist), Scheuch (bank clerk), Griffith (waiter), and Angelos (second-year medical student).  Angelos is denied a true medical education because he is Jewish, but he tinkers and designs gadgets while he attends the university, which keeps him fairly entertained.  One day, Angelos is working on a machine he thinks will allow people to communicate wirelessly over large distances, but as time goes by he discovers that all of the voices are that of people in great pain.   Their Turkish property manager comes by to collect the rent and immediately knows that Angelos has used technology to achieve something terrible:  Will magic be able to cure the problem technology has created?
I thought this was an interesting story because of the multi-cultural and retro-futuristic technology, which incorporates the spiritualism Victorians were engrossed with.  Beagle creates a modified history that was interesting, and incorporated the Turkish elements in a clever fashion.  The more I think about this story, the more I like it for its fit into the steampunk genre.  This story earned 5 stars for overall steampunk and elegance of the narrative, and is one of my favorites in the anthology.
The Shaddowwes Box (Terry Dowling): (11 pages, and takes place in England.)  The narrative begins after Queen Victoria’s death, and her son Edward VII is on the throne.  Lucas Salteri is the first person narrator, a tomb raider who is betrayed my Minchin, Benedick, and Kray on a tomb raiding trip to Egypt.   Salteri assumes another identity and lures these men to his home, where they marvel at the automatons called ‘manikins’ that look like the mummies from Maspero’s 1881 DB320 cache from Deir el-Bahir.  There are manikins in the “better klatsches and salons mecaniques off Fleet Street,” and the men are lulled into believing that Salteri is simply a technology savvy Egyptologist who has found a way to improve on the science to create more realistic machines.  Once he has the men in his home, however, he reveals a special device that owes nothing to technology.
I never did discover exactly what the horror of the device is, but it doesn’t seem necessary to the ghost story.  This is a revenge narrative, and revenge seems to be achieved. High marks for the adventure narrative and mystery, but the steampunk is subdued in this story.  I gave this story a score of 4 stars for overall steampunk and ghost story elements.
The Curious Curse of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder (Garth Nix): (13 pages, and takes place in England.)  There’s a mysterious murder in a park, and the sergeant calls for Sherlock Holmes, but gets Sir Magnus Holmes, Sherlock’s second cousin somewhat removed.  It turns out there are supernatural forces involved, and Sherlock thinks his young cousin, who is currently a resident of Bedlam, is the perfect man for the job.  Magnus and his “keeper” Miss Susan Shrike are, indeed, the perfect people for the job, but the greater mystery is who (or what) is Magnus?
Although this story lacks overt steampunk elements achieved through machinery, the suspense is well developed and the gaslight drama is very well done.  As far as I’m concerned, the means Miss Shrike uses to control Magnus is all the technology this story needs, and it caught my imagination and interest.  This story wins my “story I would most like to see as a novel” award for this anthology, and is easily my favorite of the collection.  There’s delightful ambiguity and intriguing questions, and I would love to see this story expanded to reveal more about Magnus and Susan’s relationship, and well as how Magnus copes with his supernatural abilities.  I gave this story 5 stars for overall interest and the supernatural elements used.
Why I Was Hanged (Gene Wolfe): (16 pages, takes place in England.)  This is the account is the first person written narrative of Brooks, who is hanged for killing his master.  Prior to his death, he summons his barrister and has the whole, sordid tale committed to paper so that future generations will know why he killed his master.  Brooks tells the story of how he came to be hired as a manservant to a young man, and travels with him to the family home in the country.  While there, he is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who claims that her human self is soon to be slain (since ghosts are not constrained by time, she is travelling back to the time of her death to ask him to rescue her).  Is this a rescue attempt, or something more diabolical?
There is some nice suspense to the story, but even the rereading of it doesn’t make full sense.  Miss Landon is either a cunning genius, or the plot elements feel contrived and convenient.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and suspense.
The Proving of Smollett Standforth (Margo Lanagan): (11 pages, takes place in rural England.)  A young boy is sent into service with a family and, because of his size, he is given a small attic room.  The room is haunted, and the ghost of young woman who rushes across the room initially scares the boy and causes him to lose sleep, but isn’t harmful.  But then the ghost starts insisting that the boy take an item from her, and the more nights he endures this process, the more damage it does to his physical body.  He suffers this in silence until he hears that his younger brother will be coming to stay, and will have to share his room with him.  Will the boy determine a way to defeat the ghost, or will his brother become her next victim?
This story is a traditional gothic yarn, and there really was nothing surprising or unexpected about the narrative.  There is no steampunk, and the suspense elements don’t save it from being a simple short story.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and low level of suspense.
The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star (Sean Williams): (22 pages, takes place in England.)  This is the account of Dr. John Wesley Michaels, who was involved with a bizarre case, and records the written personal testament of Hugh Gordon on the eve of his execution.  Gordon, an aeronautical engineer, has been found guilty of murdering his wife Margaret, and Michaels has been brought in to interview him prior to his execution. Gordon tells of scientific experiments that reveal the ability to travel between worlds, and he meets a mysterious woman named Abiha, who detects his experimentation and decides to visit him. But then Margaret is murdered and Gordon is seriously injured; is there a greater conspiracy by Abiha’s people to discredit him in order to keep their existence secret, or is Gordon deranged by a delusion?
This was not one of my favorite stories in this selection, but it was definitely a mixture of steampunk and gaslight, as the cover of the anthology claims. I found Williams’ story to be mildly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, with its Princess of Mars.  I gave this story 5 stars for effective use of steampunk and the way it explores Victorian fascination with spiritualism.   
Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar (Robert Silverberg): (18 pages.)  This narrative is the written personal testament of events as recorded by one of the characters long after the fact.  The story takes place in India, and is inspired by the stories of Rudyard Kipling.  A team of four civil servants are working to engineer roads and other public works in the Indian countryside when one of them, Smithers, returns with news that he heard something in the desert that makes it sound as though there are people living in the harsh Thar. The leader of the team, Yule, insists that his two engineers, Smithers and Brewster, go and investigate this phenomenon.  Brewster returns alone looking like he’s aged a decade or more, with news of a fantastic tribe that lives in the middle of the desert, isolated from the rest of the world, and completely disconnected.  What is this place Smithers discovered, and what has happened to him there?
This story has no steampunk elements beyond the profession of the characters.  There is some suspense, but the character development is so shallow that I didn’t really like or worry about the characters, or care what happens to them.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and mild suspense.
The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons (John Langan):  (21 pages.) This story takes place in New York and revolves around the spiritualism that was popular there in the 1850’s (though the story is set in 1888).  Mark Coleman is an American author who has lived abroad for most of his life abroad before returning home as a middle aged man.  He becomes curious about a spiritualist who has mysterious balloons that have been written about extensively.  On the train to his destination he meets a married couple; the husband is dying, and seeks to make his last days more comfortable by visiting Mr. Dunn, the same man who owns the balloons Coleman wants to see.  But things don’t well for the ill man, and his wife begs Coleman to please help her get her husband away from Dunn, who is refusing to let them leave. 
This story is high on the gothic factor, and the steampunk is nonexistent.  Not sure what more to say, except that there’s lots of internal storytelling, and it doesn’t seem to move the plot beyond explaining some events outside of the story.  The mystery of the balloons is only partially explained, and this limited the suspense.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and the multiple digressions within the story.
Face to Face (John Harwood): (10 pages, takes place in England.)  Maurice Trevelyan and the narrator, Laura, have known each other for a long time, and their relationship has never become a romance because Maurice has a tragedy in his past.  Maurice and Laura’s story becomes the framefor Trevelyan’s explanation for what happened to the young woman he loved, Claire. Claire was married to an older man to gain security for her family after her father died, and the marriage was an unhappy one.  When Claire attempted to leave her husband, he threatened her with taking away their child and leaving her mother and sisters destitute.  After Claire’s daughter suffers a fatal illness, Claire writes a manuscript, and then dies with her daughter’s body in her arms.  Shortly thereafter, her husband dies as well under mysterious circumstances.  Trevelyan has kept Claire’s manuscript for decades, but has never read it.  Did the manuscript have anything to do with these deaths, and is there such a thing as a book that can kill the reader? 
This is another gothic read that was only mildly suspenseful.  The narrative is short, but attempts to tell the story of two couples, and the story ran out before I developed empathy for any of the characters.  I give this story 3 stars for no steampunk and general lack of interest.
Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism (Richard Harland): (19 pages, takes place in England/English analog.)  A 13 year-old is suffering from crippling nightmares and his parents take him to a research center that promises to cure him.  When they arrive they discover that the scientist has a machine that he is using to “pull” the bad dreams out of his patients.  It turns out that the aspects of the personality that are pulled out of the patients become trapped in the machine, and cause the machine to act out the horrible acts in the minds of the patients it has been used to treat. Can the young man make his parents and the mad scientist listen to his claims that the machine is haunted before it overpowers and kills its creator? 
This story is clearly a steampunk story, especially because it examines the question of the role of technology in our lives and the degree to which we are being changed by it.  I also appreciated that Harland managed to incorporate supernatural suspense into his narrative.  This is one of my top three favorite stories in the collection, and I gave it 5 stars for its steampunk elements and well-written narrative.
The Grave Reflection (Marly Youmans): (19 pages, takes place in rural America/Eastern seaboard). This story is a narrative of events that is written down and discovered by a family member many years later in the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  In this story within a story, the author describes an event in which he is summoned to his friend’s house.  The friend is a twin, and his brother has recently died.  The only problem is the friend is now being haunted by his dead twin in every reflective surface in the house.  Will the two men find a way to dismiss the ghostly apparition before the living twin goes insane?
There wasn’t much suspense in this story, and the narrative unravels in a quiet and uninteresting way.  It was an interesting story, and I understand the inspiration and its role, but there was no steampunk and only barely any suspense. I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and the mild suspense of the narrative.

Christopher Raven (Theodora Goss): (16 pages, takes place in rural England.)  Four women convene at their childhood school for an alumnae event, and discuss what happened in their final year of school, when they were haunted by the ghost of a poet who once loved the lady of the house.  All women recall powerful dreams in which the reenacted portions of the ghosts’ romance, including erotic events.  They revisit their discovery the poet was murdered by the lady’s husband, and that she killed her husband in revenge and had their house turned into a school for girls as an act of revenge. The friends part ways, possibly for the last time, but are they really free of their haunting?
This is a ghost story and, as such, it was interesting but not exciting.  It felt like the women were simply retreading their childhood memories for the benefit of the reader, and they don’t arrive at any new conclusions that might have made this story more complex and ambiguous.  I felt this was a somewhat thin premise for telling a story that is supposed to have suspense or additional energy.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and acceptable narrative.
Rose Street Attractors (Lucius Shepard): (55 pages, takes place in London.) Samuel Prothero is an alienist (a Victorian psychiatrist, when the science was still new) who is hired by inventor Jeffrey Richmond.  Richmond was very close to his sister until her murder three years prior, and has devoted himself to an invention that will clean London’s foul air and improve the quality of life.  He builds  four ‘attractors’ to collect carbon particles and dispose of them, but one has malfunctioned and is collecting the spirits of those who have not crossed to the other side, including the spirit of Richmond’s sister.  Richmond wants Prothero to attempt contact with his sister, and to solve the mystery of her murder. But there’s a bigger mystery in Richmond’s house and the real question becomes will Prothero become the murderer’s next victim?
This story is the longest in the book, by far, and I wonder why this author was given so much space when better known authors wrote stories that were less than twenty pages.  Nonetheless, this is definitely a steampunk story, and it is one of the strongest additions of this type in the anthology.  Not my favorite, but it definitely belongs in this collection.  I gave it 4 stars for steampunk elements and overall themes within the story.
Blackwood’s Baby (Laird Barron): (30 pages, takes place near Seattle.) Hunters from all over the world receive a summons to attend a big game hunt in the United States, with the prize as nearly priceless gun and S10,000.  After arriving at the hunting lodge, however, main character Luke Honey discovers that the hunt is a cover for something far more sinister. 
This story felt, to me anyway, like a blend of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” with a twist Edgar Allen Poe’s horror was known for, and this may be why I didn’t like this story at all.  Barron’s story would more accurately be described as horror and, as such, it doesn’t seem to have a place in an anthology described as “stories of steampunk and supernatural suspense.”  Also, this story takes place as late as the 1920’s, which makes the feeling that this story doesn’t belong in this anthology even stronger.  I gave it 3 stars for lack of steampunk and incorrect placement in this anthology as this was more of a horror story.
Mysteries of the Old Quarter (Paul Park): (19 pages, takes place in New Orleans.) French scientist Dr. Philippe Delorme is recruited to give lectures on the use of electricity on human anatomy in New Orleans and discovers that his patron has hired him under false pretenses.  Monsieur Maubusson lost his daughter under tragic circumstances, and he wants Delorme to use his knowledge of electricity to reanimate her long enough to find out if she was murdered and, if so, by whom.  Although he’s initially reluctant, Delorme is persuaded to take up the case.  But the scientist has ghosts of his own, and they may have followed him across the sea. 
This is ghost story in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. I didn’t like the epistolary nature of this story at all because it fractures the narrative so much that it’s difficult to determine what is pertinent and what is a piece of casual information.  I can tolerate having to piece together the clues to come to a conclusion, but there was so much work involved in this that I forgot what I was supposed to care when I arrived at the end.  I give this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and fractured nature of the story.
Summer Palace (Jeffrey Ford): (21 pages, takes place in an alternate reality or world.)   In this story within a story the narrator tells of discovering the notes of a Physiognomist (something like a police officer, I think) named Cley in the ruins of Well-Built City.  After the narrator dries out the notes, he reads individual episodes to his friends during evening get-togethers.  On one particular night the narrator shares Cley’s report of his visit to a rural estate to look into a murder.  The caretaker of the estate has died under mysterious circumstances, and Cley has been sent because the man’s family claims there is there is a ghost who is responsible.  The estate, which belongs to Cley’s superior, has secrets, and the real question becomes whether or not Cley will be able to solve the murder without being caught in these secrets.
This was another story I felt was misplaced within this anthology.  “Summer Palace” is a prequel within Ford’s Well-Built City Trilogy, and is more a work of science fiction.  It was a little difficult to follow, because there are a plentitude of titles, names, and places that this short story isn’t enough to explain, and I don’t recognize the series “Summer Palace” is based on.  Outside of the ghostly presence, I don’t see how this story fits in with any of the remaining sixteen tales, all of which happen on Earth and are placed between 1860 and 1925.  It was an odd way to finish the anthology, and I’m left somewhat bewildered by its inclusion.  I gave this story 3 stars for lack of steampunk and questionable placement in this anthology.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurences Novel by Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris [REVIEW].

Phoenix Rising (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, #1)

A few things to note before beginning my preview:
I would like to make it clear that I wouldn’t describe this story as YA; there’s no judgment implied in this statement, only a simple caution since so many steampunk novels can easily fall into multiple age-level categories.  This novel contains references to sexual behavior and, although they never become graphic and are mostly suggested, there is the description of an orgy as well as the violent prelude to a near rape.  There is also somewhat graphic violence: there are plenty of fist, knife, and gun fights, as well as explosions, and I would advise parental guidance.  As in, parents should only hand this book to their teenager if they’ve read it first and are comfortable with their child’s maturity level.
Further:  **Warning!  Some of my analysis contains spoilers!  I tried to be as vague as possible—and there’s a lot going on in the book I never mention—but I’m trying to give fair warning here!**

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Agatha H and the Airship City: A Girl Genius Novel by Kaja and Phil Foglio [Review]

Agatha H and the Airship City: A Girl Genius Novel

I’ve had a hard time writing this review because I’m a fan of the Girl Genius webcomic, and it feels like I’m speaking ill of the series to offer up criticism on the novel.  It has taken me a while to decide that not all great comic heroes have made a graceful transition into novelized forms, and this book falls into that category.  Don’t get me wrong:  The book is a fun and entertaining read, but it is so because the original story has these qualities.  This book offers very little that is new to the Girl Genius world, and if you’re looking for a summary of volumes 1-3 of the comic reprints, or you don’t want to read the comic but want to be brought up to speed in a prose form, then this book is for you.  I enjoyed reading it, and wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to others, but this novel is simply a capable retelling of what has already transpired in the weekly strip.  If you really want to read this story, buy the graphic novel.  If you want the CliffsNotes, or absolutely must own everything Girl Genius you can get your hands on, then buy this book. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross [Review]

I started reading this book with high hopes: The advance reviews had been positive and I’m always anxious to read new Steampunk young adult fiction.  It helps that this author released a short story prior to this book that established the main character of this novel in an exciting way.  But after reading the whole story I find that there are some world building issues that lend a schizophrenic quality to this book that the narrative never able to rise above.  The novel is just too derivative: even the author describes her book as an attempt to combine League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the X-Men!  This was the flaw I couldn’t get past:  Cross draws on so many existing stories that her unique narrative gets lost and diminished to the point where I wonder where her original story is.  The resulting mixture lacks world building, contains a number of clichéd love triangles, and includes the inexplicable use of hyper-advanced technology for a Victorian world.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Strange Case of Finley Jayne by Kady Cross [Review]

Note:  At the time of the publication of this blog entry this novella was still available for free from amazon.com as a Kindle download.  I don’t know how much longer this will be the case, but it’s worth checking the website.
This story serves as an introduction to a new young adult series by Kady Cross called The Steampunk Chronicles.  The first of these books, The Girl in the Steel Corset, was released on May 24, 2011, and continues Finley’s adventures as she discovers who her father was, exactly what she is, and if there are others in the world like her.  Personally, I think this short story is an excellent introduction to the series:  The pacing is elegant, the action is well written, and Finley is a gem of a character with enough of a backstory to warrant this kind of supplemental material.  This prequel is a brilliant move because it gives the reader a chance to see some of Finley’s life before she is thrown into the events of the series, and quite frankly, I’m impatient to see where she goes from here!  This is the kind of YA literature I like:  It’s smart, there are a lot of details about Victorian England embedded in the text, and the characters have the kind of ambiguity that promotes ethical development in young adults. This is the kind of book I look forward to recommending to a school librarian or putting in a classroom library. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dead Iron by Devon Monk [Review]

It’s a bit difficult to decide the genre of Devon Monk’s Dead Iron: It’s a little bit Western, a little bit fantasy fairytale, a little bit steampunk.  With so many different elements in play chances were high that the result would be a confused and unfocused mashup, and I will admit to owning this book for months before I could bring myself to read it.  Somehow, however, this book avoids these pitfalls and delivers a new and distinct world that gracefully introduces and blends these disparate elements.  The result is an intriguing story in which elements remain just that, and serve as the framework on which to build a complex and thoughtful story. This is not to say that there weren’t things that might have been done better—but more about that later. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Corsets and Clockwork edited by Trisha Telep [Review]

I begin my review with the comment that, overall, I feel this collection is worth the money, and I would recommend it to others.  I feel like I need to preface my review with this statement because reading this collection of stories was difficult for me, and a lot of that has to do with the way in which it is labeled as a collection of 13 Steampunk romances.  Of all of these stories, I feel only four could be described as Steampunk, a handful more qualify as romances, with the rest perhaps falling under the label of urban fantasy or horror or some combination thereof.  I am concerned by the uneven story selection and by how the description on the back cover promises the reader Victorian adventure, but only a fraction can be described this way.  Further, of the thirteen primary characters, four are males and believe me when I say it doesn’t pay to be both the primary character and a male in any of these stories—no happy endings for the boys here!  It’s all a bit of a mess with good stories that fit the descriptions provided blended with stories that would have had a greater chance to shine in a different collection. 

Next Book to be Reviewed: Corsets and Clockwork

What you need to know before reading this book:

This collection of stories is aimed at a young adult audience, and is appropriate with regards to content.  If this book were a movie, it would be rated PG for scenes of violence.


From Goodreads:

Dark, urban fantasies come to life in the newest collection of Steampunk stories, Corsets & Clockwork. Young heroes and heroines battle evils with the help of supernatural or super-technological powers, each individual story perfectly balancing historical and fantastical elements. Throw in epic romances that transcend time, and this trendy, engrossing anthology is sure to become another hit for the fast-growing Steampunk genre!

This collection features some of the hottest writers in the teen genre, including: Ann Aguirre, Jaclyn Dolamore, Tessa Gratton, Frewin Jones, Caitlin Kittredge, Adrienne Kress, Lesley Livingston, Dru Pagliassotti, Dia Reeves, Michael Scott, Maria V. Snyder, Tiffany Trent, and Kiersten White.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel [Review]

I admit that as I started reading this book I felt a great deal of trepidation: I haven’t read much speculative space fiction set in a Victorian or Edwardian setting, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to enjoy this kind of story.  Kenneth Oppel’s Matt Cruse series takes place in a slightly alternate history than we are familiar with, and this is an early twentieth-century technology that relies on dirigibles as the main form of travel and transport, which I like.  In this book, however, Matt, Kate, and a new cast of characters train for space travel, and I began reading the novel unconvinced that author Kenneth Oppel could make this kind of travel plausible given the type of technology he had already established in his world building.  I chastised myself for my resistance, however, especially after considering the tradition Oppel is operating within:  French author Jules Verne wrote about space travel in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Off on a Comet (1877), American writer Edward Everett Hale theorized about space stations in The Brick Moon (1869), and English author H.G. Wells wrote about space colonization in The First Men in the Moon (1901).  There are also examples from Russian writers as well!  Clearly, there is a tradition of speculative space travel fiction spanning over a decade and a half, and rather than ask whether or not space travel is possible for this world, I needed to ask if it is internally consistent with the world Oppel has created and the literary tradition he is operating within as a whole.  My attitude safely in check, I was able to read this final book of Oppel’s trilogy with new eyes and embrace the adventure.  As with the previous novels in this series, Oppel has created a quest narrative that is action-packed and rich with tropes that are meaningful and relevant to young adult audiences, and the text reads like an action movie with vivid imagery and beautifully written adventure that kept me scrambling to see how Matt and Kate’s story ends.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Starclimber" by Kenneth Oppel

What you need to know before reading this book:
Skybreaker is the final book in the Airborn trilogy and features the adventures of Matt Cruse, a seventeen year-old air academy student, and Kate de Vries, a wealthy passenger of an airship Matt worked on in the past and now his love interest.  Although this book is rated ages 12 and up, the writing is vivid and engaging, and I believe adult readers will enjoy this work as well.  Although there is violence in this text, there is no profanity and very limited romantic expression, which makes this text ideal for young readers and classroom libraries.

From Goodreads:

An exhilarating journey to the stars—or a heartbreaking battle for survival?

Pilot-in-training Matt Cruse and his love interest, Kate de Vries, an expert on high-altitude life-forms, are invited aboard the Starclimber, a vessel that literally climbs its way into the cosmos. Matt secretly plans on asking Kate to marry him, but before they even set foot aboard the ship, Kate announces her engagement—to someone else.

Despite this bombshell, and Matt's anguish, they embark on their journey into space, but soon the ship is surrounded by strange and unsettling life-forms, and the crew is forced to combat devastating mechanical failure. For Matt, Kate, and the entire crew of the Starclimber, what began as an exciting race to the stars has now turned into a battle to save their lives.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Skybreaker" by Kenneth Oppel [Review].

One of the biggest issues with a trilogy is that the middle book tends to be a bridge for the first and last book, and it feels like you’re just marking time until the author produces the conclusion.  Luckily, Kenneth Oppel has avoided these pitfalls with Skybreaker, and the end result is a quest narrative that is action-packed and rich with tropes that are meaningful and relevant to young adult audiences.  But perhaps the best thing about this book is that it reminded me of why I love to read and write about literature:  The book reads like an action movie with vivid imagery and beautifully written adventure that kept me scrambling to see what was going to happen next.   In other words, this literature major was able to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is a rare pleasure in my world!

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Skybreaker" by Kenneth Oppel

Oppel, Kenneth.  Skybreaker.  New York: Eos. 2007.  $6.99 Massmarket Paperback.

What you need to know before reading this book:

Skybreaker is the second book in the Airborn trilogy and features the adventures of Matt Cruse, a fifteen year-old cabin boy on an airship, and Kate de Vries, a wealthy former passenger and now love interest.  Although this book is rated ages 12 and up, the writing is vivid and engaging, and I believe adult readers will enjoy this work as well.  Although there is violence in this text, there is no profanity and very limited romantic expression, which makes this text ideal for young readers and classroom libraries.

Skybreaker (Matt Cruse, #2)

From Goodreads:

  A legendary ghost ship. An incredible treasure. A death-defying adventure.
Forty years ago, the airship Hyperion vanished with untold riches in its hold. Now, accompanied by heiress Kate de Vries and a mysterious gypsy, Matt Cruse is determined to recover the ship and its treasures. But 20,000 feet above the Earth's surface, pursued by those who have hunted the Hyperion since its disappearance, and surrounded by deadly high-altitude life forms, Matt and his companions soon find themselves fighting not only for the Hyperion—but for their very lives.

"Airborn" by Kenneth Oppel [Review].

This book of young adult fiction begins with a mystery:  The airship Aurora and young cabin boy Matthew Cruse come across the hot air balloon Endurance, seemingly abandoned to the sky.  A closer inspection reveals her fatally wounded captain, Benjamin Malloy, an old man circumnavigating the world.  Benjamin has fallen afoul of air pirates, and they are the cause of the damage to the air balloon, but there is a greater mystery to be solved:  Benjamin has seen a strange animal that looks like a blend between a bat and a large cat flying in the skies, and believes he has discovered a new species.  Although Matt is young, only fourteen, he has spent years in the sky as a cabin boy, and never seen anything like what Benjamin describes, and the old man dies shortly after, his descriptions of the ‘cloud cat’ seen as the final ravings of a dying man.

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Airborn" by Kenneth Oppel

Oppel, Kenneth.  Airborn.  New York:  Harper Collins.  2005.  $8.99 Massmarket Paperback.

What you should know before reading this book:

Airborn is the first book in the Airborn trilogy and feature the adventures of Matt Cruse, a fifteen year-old cabin boy on an airship, and Kate de Vries, a wealthy teenage passenger and eventual friend.  Although this book is rated ages 12 and up, the writing is vivid and engaging, and I believe adult readers will enjoy this work as well.  Although there is violence in this text, there is no profanity and very limited romantic expression, which makes this text ideal for young readers and classroom libraries.


From Goodreads:

Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow's nest, being the ship's eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there'd been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud. . . .

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt's always wanted; convinced he's lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist's granddaughter that he realizes that the man's ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.

In a swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Oppel, author of the best-selling Silverwing trilogy, creates an imagined world in which the air is populated by transcontinental voyagers, pirates, and beings never before dreamed of by the humans who sail the skies.

"Boneshaker" by Cherie Priest [Review]

[Originally posted to my Livejournal blog on Sep. 25th, 2010].

Boneshaker was the first novel I read that could be considered "Steampunk." This is a genre that has captured my imagination and caused me to get more excited about reading than I have been in a long time. Every week my "to be read" pile grows by two or three books, and I can honestly say that I make trips to the bookstore about every other day as the result of my new Steampunk obsession! After having read a dozen books in this genre I now also know how lucky I am that this was where I started, with a gem I am convinced will become a defining text for those who will follow.

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Boneshaker" by Cherie Priest

Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker.  New York: Tor. 2009.  $15.99 (Mass Market).

What you need to know before reading this book:

Although there are zombie-like humans in this story and a significant amount of suspense, this book is age appropriate for children 12 and up.  There is also violence as well, but it is limited to a small number of skirmishes; the greatest emphasis is on Briar Wilkes' rescue of her son Ezekiel and the mystery of the Boneshaker machine. 

From the back cover:

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest.  Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska's ice.  Thus was Dr. Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine Born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city.  Just beyond it lives Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes.  Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenage boy support, but she and Ezekiel are managing.  Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

"Thomas Riley" by Nick Valentino [Review]

[Originally posted on Livejournal Sep. 26th, 2010].

I’m worried that this review is going to sound negative and over critical because I enjoyed this story, and I adore its Steampunk characteristics, but I have many concerns with how it was written and subsequently edited. It has been said that the devil is in the details, and this story, which is interesting and action packed, suffers because of the many little problems that plague it. I am well aware that this is a work of young adult fiction meant for the 13+ crowd, but I find this group to be intelligent and capable, and they are worth a text written with the same degree of polish and sophistication as those written for adults. That being said, I also get the impression that this author is early in his career and developing his writing style, and I am anxiously awaiting any future works he may write because I feel he has great potential to produce fantastic Steampunk stories. If he should ever read my humble review I would encourage him to engage a group of teen and adult beta readers to help him refine plot elements and spot the grammatical errors we all make when we write--I know I would volunteer for this task, and there are many others who would gladly do so as well!

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Thomas Riley" by Nick Valentino

Valentino, Nick. Thomas Riley.  Laurel, MD: Quake. 2010. $13.99.

What you need to know before reading this book:
This book is clearly marketed for young adults and is marked ages 13 and up.  Although there is some violence and characters die, the violence and language is kept at a level appropriate for middle school.

From the back cover:

For more than twenty years West Canvia and Lemuria have battled one another in a constant war.
From the safety of his laboratory, weapons designer Thomas Riley has cleverly and proudly empowered the West Canvian forces with his brilliant designs. But when a risky alchemy experiment goes horribly wrong, Thomas and his wily assistant, Cynthia Bassett, are thrust onto the front lines of battle.
Forced into shaky alliances with murderous sky pirates in a deadly race to kidnap the only man who can undo the damage--the mad genius behind Lemuria's cunning armaments--Thomas' own genius is put to the ultimate test.

"Worldshaker" by Richard Harland [Review]

The first time I read this story I liked it, but was a little underwhelmed by what I thought was too simple a story.  This book is rated for 10-13 year-olds, and the vocabulary and chapter length has been modified to accommodate this young audience. As a result, Col seems a little too naïve, and in places the text feels ideologically heavy handed to me; if I had written my review after my first reading, I would likely not had much positive to say.  By the time I read Harland’s text I had already read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (a work of YA literature that has been very well received by adults) and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (an adult work that could easily be read by teens), and I felt that Worldshaker suffered in comparison.  A second reading, however, caused me to pause and reconsider my original criticism about this work; while I still believe it to be somewhat lacking the maturity level of other YA authors in this genre, I think adults will enjoy this book if they understand the concerns I have pointed out and read the text with a little patience.  Steampunk literature is well-known for exploring concerns about class, the mass-produced and non-unique nature of modern technology, and the environment, and Richard Harland’s book wastes no time establishing itself within the genre in an approachable manner that should be enjoyable for both children and adults.

Next book to be Reviewed: "Worldshaker" by Richard Harland

Harland, Richard.  Worldshaker.  New York: Simon and Schuster. 2009.  $16.99 Hardback.

What you need to know before you read:
This book is a work of young adult fiction and is rated grade 6-10 by The School Library Journal.  Based on my previous experiences with YA fiction, I would rate this text as appropriate for children as young 10.  This book features parental expectationn, prejudice and the division of social classes as central themes, and parents should be prepared to  answer questions about these issues.  There is also some romantic overtones, but they are kept well within the range of what is acceptable for a work rated 10 and up.

From the dust jacket:
Col Porpentine understands how society works:  the elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks of the great juggernaut Worldshaker, while the Filthies toil Below.  And Col himself is being groomed by his grandfather, the supreme commander of the Worldshaker, to be his successor.  He has never questioned his place in the world, nor his illustrious future.

When Col meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run, his world is turned on its head.  All his life he has been taught that Filthies are like animals, without the ability to understand language or think for themselves.  He has always known that all they are good for is serving in the Below, keeping Worldshaker running.  But Riff is nothing like he ever expected.  She is clever and quick, and despite the danger, Col is drawn to her.  Can all Filthies be like her?  If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has always believed is a lie.  And Col may be the only person with the power to do something about it--even if it means risking his whole future.

Richard Harland's sweeping steampunk saga of romance, privilege, and social conscience will take readers on the ride of a lifetime to an enormous moving city that is at once strange and familiar.

"Steamed" by Katie MacAlister [Review]

I’m going to preface my review by saying that I read a lot of romances. I would even venture to say that I’ve read thousands since I was a teen in every genre: Historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, you name it. Over the years I’ve learned that my expectations necessarily need to be adjusted according to the tone and style of the text, but to say that I was disappointed by this book is an understatement, and what follows is a bit of a rant. I fully acknowledge that I am possibly being too hard on a novel that is meant to be playful and not taken too seriously, but I also believe that even the most playful literature needs to be plausible with regards to the behavior of the characters. I read because I love to take journeys in my imagination, and I don’t like it when I feel myself jarred back to reality, especially because the characters have chosen a line of action that feels inconsistent. Unfortunately, I would strongly suggest that those new to the genre avoid this one until they have read enough to be able to develop some understanding of context.  I would never suggest that a book shouldn’t be read, but I will offer my honest opinion and hope that it will be accepted in the spirit it is being offered.

Next Book to be Reviewed: "Steamed" by Katie MacAlister

MacAlister, Katie.  Steamed: A Steampunk Romance.  New York: Signet. 2010. $7.99 Mass Market Paper Back.

What you should know before you read this book:

This book is a romance with mature themes and is not appropriate for teenage readers due to frequency of detailed sexual situations.  Although this book is clearly labeled as a Steampunk romance, readers who have already read Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series should be forewarned that this book is not of the same caliber and reviews have been extremely mixed.

From Goodreads:
Computer technician Jack Fletcher is no hero, despite his unwelcome reputation as one. In fact, he's just been the victim of bizarre circumstances. Like now. His sister happens to disturb one of his nanoelectromechanical system experiments, and now they aren't where they're supposed to be. In fact, they're not sure where they are when…

…they wake up to see a woman with the reddest hair Jack has ever seen-and a gun. Octavia Pye is an Aerocorps captain with a whole lot of secrets, and she's not about to see her maiden voyage ruined by stowaways. But the sparks flying between her and Jack just may cause her airship to combust and ignite a passion that will forever change the world as she knows it…

I used to blog on Livejournal, now I'm on Blogspot

It's nothing personal, really.  I originally joined Livejournal because a friend swore up and down that she was going to be my blogging partner and we would comment back and forth on the Steampunk books we read and...well...that just didn't work out as promised.  I'm a graduate student in English, though, and reading and writing about literature comes as naturally to me as breathing; so while my friend has become increasingly busy with other projects in her life, I've continued with my commitment to be an avid student of all things Steampunk! 

This is my mission statement and purpose for being here, really; I plan to use this space to add my voice to the ever-evolving and complex discussion that surrounds this genre and the multiplicity of arts it has given rise to.  Lloyd Alexander wrote, "In some cases...we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself."  I feel this is the best way to approach my work here:

"Writing and reading are such private acts that we forget how fundamentally social they are: We hear stories read by others and we like to tell others about the stories we read; we learn to write from others and we write for others to read us." (Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 1989.) 

I will primarily be discussing books, but don't be surprised if I venture into film and music, which I consider additional forms of literature.  With all of this in mind, moving my blog over to Blogspot makes sense:  I already use google for so many other things in my life and 'follow' other bloggers on this site, and this seems like a fun place to continue with my ramblings in an area I still have so much to learn about.   

So what is "Atmology," you ask?  It is the study of aqueous vapour (also known as steam).  Aren't I clever?  Well, not really...all my other witty blog titles were already taken, so I became desperate.  After an hour of playing around with every possible idea I could come up with I finally decided to look up the 'ology' for steam and presto!  I forsee many, many conversations in which I have to explain this title, but here I am, and I hope my ramblings will be read and enjoyed by others.  Watch this space because in the coming days I will be moving over my previously published entries and--hopefully--adding new entries to the collection.