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. 
My favorite stories overall are the first and the last in the collection; Kiersten White’s “Tick, Tick, Boom,” in particular, shines and I was absolutely relieved to read this gem.  I sincerely hope White writes more Steampunk in the future, as she seems to understand some of the major concerns of the genre with regards to the questioning of social class, gender issues, and the use of technology in an evolving world.  Lesley Livingston’s “Rude Mechanicals,” Michael Scott’s “Deadwood,” and Adrienne Kress’ “The Clockwork Corset” are also exciting and have resulted in a strong desire to see more from these authors.  Dru Pagliasotti’s “Code of Blood” is an interesting departure from “A Clockwork Heart,” and I’m also excited to see more from her.
My short summaries and reviews with ratings 1 (worst) to 5 (best): 
Rude Mechanicals by Lesley Livingston.  Agamemnon Wentworth Farthing and his nephew, Quintillius, run a failing theater in London, the Aurora.  One day Quintillius is approached by the mysterious inventor Kingfisher and offered a special ‘actor’ for a performance, the Actromaton.  The Actromaton looks like a human female and responds to the name Jewel, and Kingfisher assures the Farthings that ‘she’ will be able to perform as Juliet, and create the sensation the theater needs to survive.  But is this deal too good to be true?
This story was clever, and has some surprising twists that left me shocked in the best way.  The storytelling is taut and concise, with the Steampunk focused to the automaton Jewel, which is perfect for this short story (4).
The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe by Frewin Jones. This short story is told in three parts and begins with Hector MacAlindon, a lonely and surly fisherman, who comes across a mermaid one day as he is fishing in his submersible.  Even though she is fairly hideous and doesn’t speak, he decides to take her as his wife.  Four months later, she dies giving birth to a daughter.  Hector decides to raise the child he names Silka—and raises her in isolation and chained to prevent her escape.  But then he attempts to begin a sexual relationship with Silka and she escapes and heads for London to find the true love she has been promised in the fairytales she has read.  Along the way however, she kills and eats several men who try to take advantage of her vulnerable state, and she realizes she doesn’t know the rules of human interaction or the mermaid aspect of her hybrid nature.  In the third part of the story she meets Tobias Hart who, like her, is on the run from the authorities.  In her quest to find her true love Silka has killed many men, and she is now fleeing from the police.  Is Tobias Silka’s found true love, or will she eat him for dinner?
Although I enjoyed this twisted fairytale, I’m not certain what makes it Steampunk beyond the train on which Silka travels to London and the airship that makes an appearance at the end.  I would call this story an urban fantasy, and warn readers that there are some mild gross out moments. (3)
Wild Magic by Ann Aguirre.  Pearl Magnus is the daughter of a high ranking family who hides the secret that she has far more fairy power than she lets on.  Her world is one that relies on science, and has long since given up magic and criminalizes its use.  One day she is in the market and comes across a portrait of a young man; she is unable to resist the purchase and quickly comes to realize that the young man in the picture, Pick, is in a magical world called the Wild and the portrait is his portal to her world. He tells her that others like her want to restore the Old Magic, and that he needs her desperately to help in this task.
This story feels like a variant of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, and isn’t Steampunk in any way I could discern—this is fantasy, plain and simple. The story also loses points for lack of complexity and excessive triteness.  (1)
Deadwood by Michael Scott.  This story takes place in the Wild, Wild West circa May 1868.  16 year-old Martha is on an airship headed west when she meets a young man.  He’s wearing a special bulletproof vest and carrying a couple of guns and introduces himself as “JW.”  Shortly after, the airship is taken hostage and landed in the Midwest, in a little town called Deadwood.  The captain of the ship tells the passengers that they are all going to be sent to work in the mines that are helping the make the wealthy of Deadwood even wealthier.  Martha and JW must collaborate to liberate the airship and the prisoners in the town.
This story is a fine YA addition to the ‘Wild Wild West’ subcategory that has recently made inroads in Steampunk.  In this alternate history airships are the primary mode of travel instead of trains, and the evil villain is plotting to take over the world with automatons.  Author Michael Scott gets bonus brownie points for his creative manipulation of history and use of historical figures.  (5)
Code of Blood by Dru Pagliasotti.  This story is told in five parts and takes place in the “Republic of Venice” in 1815.  Napoleon has long desired this territory because of their machinery and control of elemental spirits.  After all the leaders who can control the elemental spirits are captured, the last remaining scion of these noble houses, Chiara Dandolo, must sacrifice her blood—and possibly her life—to save Venice.  
I wouldn’t call this story Steampunk as much as I would call it urban fantasy, especially because it is set in a historical period outside the Victorian or Edwardian eras, but I can’t quibble with the use of clockwork automatons and the way machinery is widespread throughout the story.  This was a fun story to read because of the romance that develops for Chiara, and the preoccupation with alchemy definitely lends a Victorian feeling to the tale.  (4)
The Clockwork Corset by Adrienne Kress.   Imogen is a wealthy young woman whose mother died when she was young.  She has been raised by her father in a monstrously huge house filled with clocks.  The servant who tends the clocks has a son, Rafe, and the two children grow up together, always inseparable.  Then Rafe is called to war, to tend the massive clockwork machines that are keeping their side going.  Imogen is worried about Rafe, so she dresses like a boy and travels to the front line to protect him if she can.
This story reads a bit like a fairytale, and I can imagine it being turned into an animated short.  It is, unfortunately, a little simple and unchallenging, and the titular ‘clockwork corset’ is a predictable plot twist.  Despite this, the story was entertaining, and is one of the few I would label Steampunk in this anthology. (4)
The Airship Gemini by Jaclyn Dolamore. Siamese twin sisters Patience and Faith are on an airship as entertainers when a mage comes aboard and decides to divide the sisters using magic.  The sisters don’t want to be divided, but their guardian insists even though one or both might not survive.
This story loses points for incoherence and general lack of appeal.  There are silly plot twists, excessive gore, and an overall lack of anything that could be labeled Steampunk outside of the airship the story takes place on. (1)
Under Amber Skies by Maria V. Snyder.  This story takes place at the beginning of WWII in Poland.  Young Zosia Jadwiga Nowak hasn’t seen her inventor father in months and her mother isn’t being forthcoming. Will Zosia figure out the mysteries surrounding her parents before the Germans come?
This was one of my favorite stories in the collection despite its being set in WW II, outside of the Victorian or Edwardian periods.  This story is thematically complex, and it asks the reader to think about the ethics of war and the way societies use machines.  Further, there were surprising plot twists that kept my interest and made me long for a lengthier story.  (4)
King of the Greenlight City by Tessa Gratton.   17 year-old Everest Aleksander the Younger has a pair of problems:  He’s engaged to be married to Alys Greentree of the Chenworth Niobes and is a fire worker heir to the council seat of the Prometheans, but he can fly.  Ever decides to travel to Greenlight city, a mysterious Oz-like place where a king wizard called Titan lives that might be able to explain why he has more than one gift and perhaps train him in the use of his magic. 
This story is a fantasy, and there is no Steampunk that I could detect.  There are fairytale aspects, but the feel is more Hans Christian Anderson than Grimm Brothers (i.e., there’s a twist, and it doesn’t end well for the hero).  (2) 
The Emperor’s Man by Tiffany Trent.   Garrett Reed is a colonel in the Imperial House Guard in New London who has disturbing memories of having been something else in his past.  One day His Most Scientific Majesty assigns Garrett to escort his daughter Athena into the forest to protect her during the Imperial Manticore Hunt but things aren’t always as they seem!
This is another story that reads like the French fairytale Donkeyskin, but it is saved from fully falling into this category with an interesting (Steampunk?) plot twist at the end.  (3)
Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride by Dia Reeves.  Sue Jane Mahoney is dating Chesney Albert Hill, affectionately known as “Chickie” by all his friends. Chickie is a prolific inventor, always adjusting things, including creating a time machine.  The teens are on a date one night when they are told a small boy has been kidnapped.  Will they rescue him before the worst happens?
This story is set during the Freedom Ride of 1961, and felt far more like urban fantasy than Steampunk.  In all honesty, the only Steampunk I could detect were the decorative tubes on a modified car which fill with steam.  In other words, there isn’t any Steampunk in the story and this engrossing horror story would have been better suited in an anthology within that genre.  (3)
 The Vast Machinery of Dreams by Caitlin Kittredge. Not sure how to describe this story, which is fragmented and feels like a drug induced dream, each segment of which begins with, “This is what happened.”  Matt Edison is fourteen [fifteen?] and can’t seem to keep a job.  He wants to write stories, and it seems as though his head is exploding with all the things he wants to say.  He meets a girl [Claire, Isabelle?] and she eventually tells him that her race needs humanity to dream of them in order for them to continue to exist.  Matt disappears.
As with the previous selection, this feels like a horror story, and there is little discernible Steampunk.  I’m not sure when throwing a scene with clockworks into a story made it classifiable as Steampunk, but it’s an annoying trend that emphasizes how much this tale belongs in a different type of anthology.  (1)
Tick, Tick, Boom by Kiersten White. Catherine, daughter of Lord Ashbury is a secret inventor who creates bombs for the protestors who are trying to bring about social changed in England.  By day she is the perfect daughter, by night she runs the streets of London dressed as a boy and delivering the devices she makes to their buyers.  Then Franklin Greenwood comes into her life as a potential suitor and Catherine is concerned that her father is not only going to marry her off, but to a terrible prig and stick in the mud.
This is by far my favorite story in the collection, with interesting plot twists and a fantastic nod to stories like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and is one of the reasons why I would recommend this collection to others.  The teenager in me has given it a standing ovation, and hopes that Kiersten White will consider writing it as a novel length text because I simply can’t get enough!  (Off the Chart for Awesomeness)
Not to say that I think any of these stories are bad, no matter how I rated each!  It just that many of these selections feel like they're in the wrong anthology.  I commend contributor Dia Reeves for providing a story with strong black characters, and Michael Scott’s fun with history. I also appreciate how this collection is appropriate for young adult audiences, and I would have no difficulty in handing it to a tween or teen to read or with putting this book in a school library.  

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