Hunted, the second entry in self-publishing superstar Lindsay Buroker‘s Flash Gold Chronicles, is a steampunk adventure novel that picks up right where Flash Gold left off. Although Flash Gold was enjoyable, it was ultimately forgettable. Hunted improves on every aspect of the original, including stronger character development, even better prose, and dialogue that is vastly improved.
The heroes of the story are the same as the first; Kali McAllister is still trying to avoid being killed for the recipe to her father’s invention of flash gold, an energy source used for fantastical machinery. Her partner in crime is a grizzled mercenary slash bodyguard called Cedar, although that isn’t his real name. They are both well-developed characters with real, nuanced personalities that lend a surprisingly realistic feel to a clearly science fiction piece.
In Hunted, Kali is being stalked by a mysterious villain who apparently has a serious bone to pick. Meanwhile, she is invited to a mine by her ex-fiancee, a jackass named Sebastian. Without spoiling the actual plot of the novella, there is a lot of action and Kali and Cedar end up facing off with a villain that feels straight out of a Silver Age comic book—in a good way.
With strong female characters being so hard to come by in science fiction, the series as a whole is a big breath of fresh air. Kali is an instantly likable heroine, with great depth of character considering the brevity of the first two novellas and the extraordinarily high amount of action in each. Hunted is definitely worthwhile reading, and shows how talented Lindsay Buroker really is.
After the pure enjoyment factor of The Bookman, the first novel in the loosely connected Bookman Histories, it was hard not to be excited to push forward onto Camera Obscura. While The Bookman was the adventure of a young man in search of lost love, Camera Obscura is a steampunk noir murder mystery featuring a kick ass heroine and a pile of bodies that keeps getting bigger. It is sort of a Chandler-esque gumshoe story crossed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style steampunk that pulls characters from all sorts of different works and puts them in strange situations.
Milady de Winter is a brilliant character so well-written that she begs to reappear. To compare her to female heroes in other novels and different mediums is to do her an injustice, as she is completely unique in her badassery. Strong black characters are rare in science fiction to begin with, and strong black female characters are even fewer and further between. Tidhar using a minority character in a steampunk setting is refreshing, and to have her be as strong a character as she is makes for excellence. Although the novel is enjoyable on its own merits, the most memorable part of Camera Obscura is surely its protagonist.
A little bit more than halfway through the novel, a traumatic and extraordinarily violent episode for Milady de Winter happens that not only changes her character significantly but changes the tone of the novel so drastically that it feels like a completely new story. While the first half is pretty straight forward (and enjoyable) point to point murder mystery, the second half reads like a twisted existentialist fantasy that is interesting but sometimes hard to follow and more difficult to enjoy. Tidhar obviously is a brilliant writer whose prose is careful and exciting with characters that leap off the page, but the change in mood makes the end result of Camera Obscura feel a bit more disjointed than it should.
Although it is easy to enjoy Camera Obscura without having read its predecessor, it is recommended that you read The Bookman first to get a sense of the world that the story takes place in before moving into this second installment. Both novels are completely unique experiences that are nothing like anything else in steampunk. Despite their flaws, they are essential reading in the steampunk subgenre, as being unique in the world of zeppelins and goggles is something that just doesn’t happen too often.
Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.
Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.
The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.
Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.
Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.
Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.
It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.
Financial success in the world of independently published science fiction and fantasy is an illusive beast. In order to even approach a supplemental income from being a writer without the help of one of the bigger publishers you need a lot more than pure talent. Aside from being a really special writer, it also requires a writer to be quite prolific, even more so than a traditionally published author, and it almost definitely requires high social media intelligence. You essentially have to be the writer, agent, marketer, and social media manager all at once, while still finding time to actually sit down and churn out that novel or two a year.
Lindsay Buroker is one of the writers on the scene that anyone who has an interest in indie sci-fi has heard of and probably read. She is the writer behind such glowingly reviewed works as the steampunk adventure Flash Gold (reviewed on Android Dreamer earlier this month) and The Emperor’s Edge (review coming here in July), both of which are the first entries in similarly named series that have really high ratings on websites like Goodreads and Amazon, and have managed to sell really well for being self-published. Although, according to her website, she isn’t making as much as when she was doing a day job, she is making a livable wage by being a writer completely on her own terms.
Publishing two or more novels a year is a really amazing clip that most novelists would be terrified to even attempt; so much goes into outlining and developing a novel, followed by probably many rewrites, that unless you’re already doing it for a living it is just about impossible to find time to do it. Buroker has managed to pull it off and established that independent publishing can be a way to fulfilling ones own literary dreams without having to jump through anyone else’s hoops. A lot more can be read about Lindsay’s trip to literary self-sufficiency at her website, www.lindsayburoker.com.
Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot, 1979 (orig)
It seems an incomplete picture of what steampunk is if one does not at least mention the earliest works. Although Homunculus didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable a read as one would hope, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night pretty much was exactly what anyone could hope for when it comes to excellence in the earliest days of the steampunk sci-fi movement. It is worth mentioning that Jeter is also responsible for The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk novel of such quality that it is second only to the first two books of William Gibson’s original Sprawl trilogy, and ought to be thought of as a classic of that subgenre.
Morlock Night is not the first The Time Machine sequel written by someone else, but is one of the better known ones. The basic idea is that one of the attendants of the party in which the Time Traveler told the story of his adventures to the future is having a chat with a man named Dr. Ambrose about whether or not the story is actually true, and by the time he gets home he finds himself thrust into a London that has been taken over by the Morlocks of the future, who appear to have stolen the Time Traveler’s machine.
In many ways, Morlock Night is a standard fantasy romp. The narrator has to find various copies of Excalibur and put them together to restore the legendary sword to power, and give it to a reincarnation of King Arthur so that he may drive the evil from England and save the world from the Morlocks. Jeter writes absolutely brilliantly, though, and the author captures the narrative voice of Wells so perfectly that if one were told this was written in the late 19th century, it would be hard to doubt. Comparing it to his other works, it is quite remarkable how well Jeter manages to change his writing style to fit the mood of the piece without it feeling hackneyed. He has dabbled in everything from cyberpunk to Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and otherwise, so at the very least he is a diverse writer.
To compound the good points of Jeter’s writing overall, his characters are really compelling. The narrator (Edwin Hocker) is a sympathetic character that is very easy to like, and the woman Tafe who accompanies him throughout is a perfect steampunk heroine who frequently kicks ass and takes names. Dr. Ambrose is similarly interesting; there is really nothing bad to say about any of the writing or character development at all. This novel is really gripping early on and only gets better as it goes on. Perhaps the overall plot was a little simplistic, but it was still deeply enjoyable.