Sometimes, Steampunk books are serious challenges to the ideals of the Victorian age and tread on the dark side, and other times they are silly fun. Letters Between Gentleman, by award-winning “chap hop” artist Professor Elemental and accomplished author Nimue Brown, is most definitely the latter.
As implied by the title, this book is presented as correspondence between the mad genius, Professor Elemental, and his hapless benefactor. The sister of said benefactor is concerned for her brother’s welfare in light of the string of accidental deaths at the hands (mechanical, animal or some combination of the two) of the Professor’s creations. So she hires a private detective, Algernon Spoon, to look into their association. The book is also populated with the Professor’s “Notes to self” on a range of topics including the best way to preserve beheaded badgers and his on-going battle with the mice he trained to take dictation.
The format left a little to be desired, but on the whole I really enjoyed reading this book. I regularly laughed out loud at throughout at the crazy inventions, cease and desist letters from would-be clients and humorously exaggerated gender norms. Some books carry their readers along on a tide of action, but I kept on reading this one because it was purely entertaining.
Letters came out in September of 2014 and is available now as an ebook or hardcover.
If you aren’t familiar with the Professor’s music videos, check out the animated piece featured on Disney’s Phineas and Ferb below, or watch any of several posted on his website.
When I started writing For Whom The Gear Turns I thought maybe, just maybe, someday a literary agent would contact me and offer me a free book to read and review. You can imagine my surprise when after only blogging for 6 months it happened! I worried a little that this would color my view of The Iron Jackal (Book 3 of The Tales of the Ketty Jay), especially after the giddy rush I got from opening the package when it arrived. But in the end, it gave me a giddy rush all on its own.
Chris Wooding has been writing the Tales of the Ketty Jay for several years, he is all the way through Book 5 in the UK. But, it was his US agent who contacted me, and told me that they were going to start with Book 3 for the American release on June 1. I was a bit skeptical about starting in the middle of a series, but it meant being dropped into a fully formed and complex world that was a joy to explore and made me even more interested to go back and read the earlier books. There are airship pirates, complicated relationships, daemon-imbued walkie talkies and multi-faceted cultural and political systems that overlap and contradict in a very realistic way. What’s NOT to like?
This tale focuses on the captain of Ketty Jay, Frey, but the story is told through the eyes of the entire crew as they take turns enriching the story with their insights and foibles. It all starts when this rag-tag band is enlisted by Frey’s “its complicated,” Trinica the pirate queen, to steal an artifact of unknown origin and purpose off of a moving train. It reminded me a little of one of my all-time favorite episodes of Firefly, only I really doubt that Frey would ever return the goods like Malcolm Reynolds no matter what they are. In this case, the artifact turns out to be a weapon that seems both ancient and futuristic at the same time, but when Frey lets his ego get the best of him and lifts it from its case the real adventure begins. The weapon pricks his palm and leaves behind the most dreaded of pirate iconography, “the black spot.”
As scary as the Kraken is, I think the daemon that pursues the bearer of the spot in Wooding’s world is even more terrifying. The Iron Jackal is a sinister amalgamation of flesh, machine and the bearer’s darkest secrets and most painful regrets. Frey is haunted by the voice of a man he left to die and the eyes of the woman he abandoned to pursue his life of piracy. But even with his dark past, his loyal crew will stop at nothing to help their captain return the artifact to its resting place to save his life and the family they have built aboard the Ketty Jay. If only they knew where that resting place was…
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a fun read, but doesn’t mind some moral ambiguity. Frey is by no means a “good guy” by nature, but his Archer-like humor and quest for redemption in Trinica’s eyes make him a very compelling hero. The rest of the crew also gets to be fully-formed people with loves, losses and secrets all their own, so in the end it is really an ensemble piece rather than a story just about Frey. There are some nuances of the political issues that I am sure that I have missed because of not reading the earlier books, but it still definitely holds together as a stand-alone novel and a great place to start exploring Wooding’s work.
Hubby and I were on our way home from getting fingerprinted (part of the Bulgarian visa application) and I spotted a Half Price Books on the map. I had barely said the word “books” before we were turning into the parking lot and turning a totally boring errand into a nice afternoon out.
I told my companion to go frolic in the Ancient History section while I perused the art books and I found one that I can’t wait to explore! It is called A Practical Step-By-Step Guide to Making Pop-Ups and Novelty Cards: A Masterclass in Paper Engineering, which is a term that I had never heard before. I have been struggling to find a way to describe the work I do with paper, and I think that is a fitting descriptor. I am really looking forward to finding new ways to make things pop out of my shadow boxes, and the book is full of pictures so it is easy to follow.
Next, I hit the Sci-Fi section and pulled up my Steampunk Books page to help me comb the shelves for new books. I am happy to report that I got a hold of my first Phillipa (Pip) Ballantine novel, Phoenix Rising, the first in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.
Sometimes when I go to a bookstore I search alphabetically through my book list, but after the B’s I put down my phone and drifted through the titles, touching the spines. I ended up with two more books to add to my growing list, Devices and Desires, by K. J. Parker and Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters
(Has anyone else noticed that authors don’t seem to have first names anymore?)
Devices and Desires is the first in a speculative fiction series called “The Engineer Trilogy.” From what I gather from other reviewers, it takes place in a dystopic land where deviating from the established blueprints can bring a death sentence. At over 700 pages and with warnings of its density echoing in my ears I think I will set this one aside until after I have done my Steam Tour reading.
Whitechapel Gods caught my attention of course because of Jack the Ripper. I have started to look into which tours and sites I want to do in order to write my Ripper article for Steam Tour so the neighborhood was on my mind. In S. M. Peters’ novel, Whitechapel has become a walled-off, steam-driven hell for its residents, and chronicles the story of the new resistance.
When hubby and I reconvened at the cheap DVDs (The Brothers Grimm for $6 :)) he had a wonderful reference book in hand. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships. It has wonderful chapter titles like “Clouds in a Bag” and “The Fabulous Silver Fishes” and tons of images of different kinds of flying machines. I am designing a flying machine for my novel right now so this book will be perfect for figuring out how I want it to work.
What’s your newest treasure from the bookstore?
Your favorite cohort of Steampunk heroes is back in another installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen!
Our story starts on the surface of Mars where literary heroes Gulliver Jones (Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, 1905) and John Carter (Princess of Mars, 1917) are organizing a resistance against an alien race of foreign origin that is trying to invade. All too quickly their struggle ends with the aliens on their way to the homeland of those who oppose them: Earth.
We meet up with Ms. Murray, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, The Invisible Man and the ever so dubious Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde when they are called in to investigate an impact crater in the countryside. Tentacled aliens make short work of the white flag waving humans who try to make contact, and the league retreats for the evening. The Invisible Man slips unseen through the darkness (like a dark unseeable slippy thing) to meet with the aliens in secret, and through the ingenious use of scribbling pictures in the dirt he becomes their ally. After getting his intell, the aliens mount an attack from craters all over England using the giant walking tripods they built to protect their soft, molluscky bodies.
While Nemo and Hyde keep London safe from the attacking hordes, Mina and Allan are sent on a mission to retrieve a special weapon from the infamous Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896). Relationships are reshaped and bodies broken in the pages leading up to the exciting conclusion of this installment of Alan Moore‘s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
I liked this book, but I preferred the first “LXG”. There were some very interesting moments between Hyde and Mina, and between Mina and Allan, but I wanted an enemy that was less unambiguously evil than killer aliens that just wanted to blow stuff up. The double crossing and false identities in the first one made for an interesting and complex story, which was really what I was looking for in my sequel rather than a romantic entanglement between the doddering Quartermain and Mina. (Yep, there is totally grandpa sex in this book) I usually really like to see my characters grow and change, but it is tricky with this concept of bringing all of these fully-formed characters together because too much deviation by Moore could feel like a betrayal to the original.
In addition to the main story, there is an additional material like the New Traveller’s Almanac that informs the reader all about the world of LXG and more literary reference fun.
If you haven’t read it, check out my reviews of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1.
What is it about our many legged friends that makes them a popular trope in Steampunk?
۞ Monster Cephlapods have been the major focus of several classic works of Science Fiction and Fantasy such as H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the 1830 Tennyson poem The Kraken. There is also a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story called Horror of the Heights that features a flying tentacled monster. In more recent times both the Kraken and Cthulu-like monsters have made appearances in Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (though you also get a good look at the Kraken after it is death in Pirates of the Caribbean: World’s End).
۞ Their bodies are also reminiscent of complex machines. The long skinny tentacles are like wires or tubes and their movement is powered by water, not unlike steam vehicles. As a bonus their bodies kind of look like they are wearing a helmet and goggles all the time, and if Steampunk had an official symbol I’m pretty sure it would be a pair of goggles (or maybe a gear).
۞ Brian Kesinger, the talented artist behind Otto and Victoria and the book Walking Your Octopus: Your Guidebook to the Domesticated Cephlapod, did an interview for ComicMix.com, and when asked about his choice to draw an octopus as a couture pet he answered:
“I find octopuses extremely fun to draw. It is a real challenge inventing eight different things for them to do in every image. They are nature’s original multi-tasker and they certainly have captured the imagination of a lot of people. Along with the squid and other Cephalopods, octopuses seem to be a sort of theme animal for steampunk so when I set forth trying to render an image of a high class Victorian lady and her boutique pet the choice was obvious. What was not obvious was how popular Otto has become since I first drew him a year ago. He has inspired fan art, tattoos and I’ve even seen girls cosplay Victoria and conventions around the country! And for that I am so grateful and it keeps me drawing octopus.”
Cephlapods are fascinating creatures that are about as far away from human as you can get.
۞ I used to work at an aquarium so I got a chance to spend lots of time observing octopus and my personal favorite cuttlefish. These invertebrates can move in three dimensions, jetting around the water column and feeding on smaller animals.
They are also totally visually stunning. Undulating tentacles aside, many of them can change color and shape at will, which makes them masters of disguise. Want to have your mind blown? Check out the PBS documentary below for more information about cuttlefish camouflage.
I’ve collected just a sampling of the Steampunk art featuring our many-legged friends out there on the interwebs. In most cases you can get the artist’s name by simply hovering over each image and you can open a gallery of larger images by clicking on any thumbnail. If you see something that is mislabeled or you know who is behind one of my unlabeled entries please let me know so I can give the artist the credit s/he deserves.
Click on any thumbnail to open the gallery of larger images.
Like The Golden Compass, City of Ember skirts the edge of “true” Steampunk, but I have seen it on several Steampunk movie countdowns (though interestingly not on book lists.)
The story centers on two teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). We meet them on their Assignment Day when their entire future careers get determined by the luck of the draw. Doon is supposed to become a messenger, but he trades that choice job away to Lina in return for a chance to work under the city and gain access to the generator that supplies the lifeblood of Ember: electricity. Because Ember lies deep below the ground, safe from the terror that took place 241 years ago. Without the generator the entire population would be plunged into total darkness and the electric lights mounted all over the city is there only refuge from the abyss beyond.
But lately, the lights have begun to flicker.
Lina is delighted to become a messenger and dives into her duties with gusto. She is the grownup in her tiny family, which consists of a little sister named Poppy with a propensity for putting things in her mouth and a dear (though slightly crazy) grandmother who spends her days taking thread out of clothing and spooling it for reuse (no on has had new clothes for over a century). In the depths of a closet, Poppy uncovers a mysterious metal box that had belonged to a former mayor and proceeds to gnaw on the contents.
Lina recognizes the writing on the pages as coming from the revered and little understood “builders” who created Ember and, with the help of Doon, attempts to recreate the documents from the chewed mess. To their shock and amazement, they seem to be telling of a way out of Ember, and out of the danger of starvation and perpetual darkness. Can Lina and Doon overcome the rampant corruption in their government to discover the truth and lead the citizens of Ember to salvation?
Some fun facts and context:
۞ The movie is based on a novel called The City of Ember that was released in 2003. You can read an interview with the author here about the novel’s tenth anniversary this year.
۞ DuPrau wrote 2 sequels, The People of Sparks (2004) and The Diamond of Darkwood (2008), as well as a prequel called the Prophet of Yonwood (2006) that tells of the cause of the apocalypse that led to the building of Ember.
۞ The City of Ember was made into a graphic novel in 2012 by Niklas Asker.
۞ Harry Treadaway (Doon), most recently appeared in the 2013 Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Saoirse Ronan (Lina) has lent her voice as well as her face to several films and is best known for her roles in Atonement and The Lovely Bones.
۞ The film includes a few major changes from the book. First off, giant mutated animals. In the book, Doon keeps a caterpillar to observe it and is utterly fascinated by insects because the people of Ember never see things from above ground. In the film he finds a moth is easily 2 feet across, upping the visual ante but not staying true to the novel. There is also a completely terrifying star nosed mole as large as a hippopotamus that delivers the come-uppence to Ember’s corrupt mayor (played by Bill Murray), which never appeared in the book. Likely this is a reference to the nuclear cause of the apocalypse in the Prophet of Yonwood and mutations that could follow. Personally, I did not like the change, I thought the book was already great without the novelty.
۞ The other big change, which is probably the reason the movie ends up in Steampunk lists and the book does not, is the amount of gadgetry. In the movie, Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) is an inventor and Rube Goldberg type machines cook their breakfast, while in the book he runs a shop populated by old shoe heels and rusty nails. There are also scenes that take place in the huge industrial center under the city, but the tech is all there to create electricity so it is not very Steampunk in the end. But the gritty, dark ambiance and added mechanical gizmos definitely make you feel like you are in the past rather than the distant future.
۞ The set was built in the same shipyard the Titanic was, and many of the interiors that were built were never used in a single shot but add to the depth of the visual story. Check out the clips below the gallery for more windows into the underground city.
Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
When I decided to start this blog one of the first things I did was head to my local library. The more I learned about Steampunk, the more I realized I had a lot of reading to do! I picked up a mix of classic sci-fi like H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. but I had also heard good things about Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices trilogy so in I decided to read a mix of the old and the new at the same time.
I’ve only gotten as far as the first book in the series, Clockwork Angel, but I will definitely be reading the trilogy to the end. The Infernal Devices series takes place before Clare’s earlier trilogy (Mortal Instruments) about an angelically infused group of warriors fighting the forces of darkness to keep us “mundanes” out of the crossfire, but it is not meant as a prequel. (Clare stresses on her website that the books can be read in any order.) The story takes place in dreary streets of Victorian London and follows the misadventure of sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray.
The story starts with her imprisonment in the hands of the strange Dark Sisters, who help her unlock her previously unknown supernatural talent. With the help of a deliciously malicious (not to mention handsome) rising Shadowhunter Will, Tessa escapes and finds herself sucked into a race against time to stop a clockwork army in the hands of the mysterious and powerful Magister. You can read and excerpt here. Next on my reading list? The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack (a Burton and Swiborne novel).