Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is a new young adult collection edited by veteran anthologists Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. Featuring twelve conventional short stories and two graphic entries, Steampunk! showcases a wide variety of ideas and styles that fall under the steampunk umbrella. The collection is entertaining and is lent extra freshness by the variety of settings explored by the authors: none of the stories are set in Victorian London.
The book begins with “Some Fortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare. This is a creepy little story about a rather warped young girl who desires love but knows very little about it. The ending will leave you wondering, “How many times…”
Set in an alternate Wild West on another planet, Libba Bray’s “The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” follows a girl who goes undercover with a gang of female outlaws and finds her loyalties shifting toward them and away from the Pinkertons she works for. The narrative voice is terrific — I kept imagining the story being told by Hailee Steinfeld — and the religious cult that haunts her past is chilling.
“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow is set in an oppressive orphanage for children maimed in factory accidents. Their keeper meets his untimely end, and the kids see a chance to seize their own destinies. The story is macabre, a bit twisted, and darkly funny, and ends in a surprisingly uplifting way.
The first of the two graphic entries is Shawn Cheng’s “Seven Days Beset by Demons.” I don’t think I quite “got” this one. I had trouble liking the protagonist, and while I enjoyed other stories in the anthology that revolved around unsympathetic characters, this one didn’t give me much to sink my teeth into except the emotional state of the protagonist. His reactions just seemed way overboard in regards to how briefly he’d known his love interest, but I’ll grant that this may have been an intentional decision related to the story’s Seven Deadly Sins theme.
Ysabeau S. Wilce offers a tale of early forensics and mad science in “Hand in Glove.” A detective struggles against her fellow officers’ reluctance to embrace newfangled methods of crime-solving as she investigates a mysterious murder spree. An enjoyable story.
“The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman is a charming entry, a Gothic ghost story with a mechanical twist. It’s beautifully written and doesn’t go quite where you expect it to, in large part because of its spirited heroine who chafes at restrictions of both gender and class.
Elizabeth Knox’s “Gethsemane” is set in the South Pacific but is based, at least in part, on the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelee in the West Indies island of Martinique. Knox follows four characters, each of whom has a story, and each of these stories is made up of a complex tangle of truth and lies. The lies start to unravel as disaster strikes Gethsemane, and the truths discovered are often tragic, but the process of learning them is satisfying for the reader.
“The Summer People” by Kelly Link is a story of fairies in Appalachia. The steampunk connection is a bit tenuous — you could remove the steampunk and still have essentially the same story — but it does provide a clever new look at why one shouldn’t take certain metals along while visiting the fairies. Even though it’s really more of a fairy story than a steampunk one, “The Summer People” is haunting; I think I’ll remember its twist and the rooms of the fairies’ house for a long time.
Garth Nix’s “Peace in Our Time” centers on an old man who at first seems doddering and innocent, but whose role in a horrific cataclysm unfolds gradually as he is interrogated by a young woman. An interesting character study.
Christopher Rowe’s “Nowhere Fast” is set in Kentucky in a post-apocalyptic future. Anti-technological beliefs have taken over, to the point of becoming repressive. Into this setting comes a young man in a device that isn’t at all exotic to us, but is shocking to the townspeople: a car. I thought this story was going somewhere darker than it actually went, but it’s a thought-provoking look at how any philosophy can be taken too far.
The second graphic entry is “Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Engaging and well-drawn, “Finishing School” tells the story of a famous aviatrix’s first flight as seen through the eyes of her childhood friend, now a dentist. I enjoyed it and wished there were more of it; I wanted to see more of both women’s lives.
“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks is set in our own time, as a teenage boy falls slowly and awkwardly in love with a geeky, outcast girl in his class. They bond over the graphic novels the girl writes, which relate the adventures of Steam Girl, an author avatar whose life is filled with planet-hopping high adventure. Meanwhile, they face bullying at school, and it also becomes evident that the Steam Girl yarns are more closely tied to their creator’s troubled real life than one might expect. “Steam Girl” is an absolutely beautiful story in which any high-school pariah — current or former — will see a little bit of him or herself.
Next is Holly Black’s “Everything Amiable and Obliging.” This story is set in an alternate Regency England where automata are employed as domestics and in other subservient positions. The narrator’s cousin falls in love with an automaton, and the narrator tries to scuttle the romance by proving the automaton is incapable of love. Like “Nowhere Fast,” this is a story I thought was going to go darker than it did. Black paints a disturbing scenario regarding the sentience (or not) and the free will (or not) of the robots, but ties it up in a way that seems fluffier than is warranted by the themes.
Closing out the anthology is M.T. Anderson’s “The Oracle Engine.” Anderson places his entry in an ancient Rome that never was. It’s much like the real, historical Rome — but these Romans have more advanced technology. They have flying machines, and it’s implied that they nuked Carthage. “The Oracle Engine” draws on the real-life history of the consul Crassus and uses that as the foundation for a terrific story of revenge. If you know your Greco-Roman mythology, it’s not hard to guess where this story is going, but Anderson makes the journey irresistible.
Steampunk!: An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories is a solid anthology well worth picking up by any young adult (or not-so-young adult) reader interested in the steampunk genre. Especially satisfying were the complex characters who populate these tales and the diverse range of settings. My personal favorites were the entries by Link, Horrocks, and Anderson, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole collection and have discovered some new authors to try.