Tag: "steampunk"

Book Review: Ghosts of Engines Past by Sean McMullen

When I was offered the opportunity to review Ghosts of Engines Past, a short-story collection by one of my favorite authors, Sean McMullen, the initial e-mail said it was a steampunk anthology. I suppose this is broadly true, in much the same way that an anthology about veterinarians might be 80 percent dog stories. In this case, the 80 percent is stories of flight.

And if there’s one thing McMullen knows how to do, it’s make people fly.

EP394: Good Hunting

by Ken Liu

Read by John Chu

About the Author…

I’ve worked as a programmer and as a lawyer, and the two professions are surprisingly similar. In both, one extra level of indirection solves most problems.

I write speculative fiction and poetry. Occasionally, I also translate Chinese fiction into English.

My wife, Lisa Tang Liu, is an artist. I’m working on a novel set in a universe we came up with together.

Things I like: pure Lisp, clever Perl, tight C; well-designed products, the Red Sox; sentences that sound perfect in only one language; math proofs that I can hold in my head; novels that make me quiver; poems that make me sing; arguments that aren’t hypocritical; old clothes, old friends, new ideas.

Labels that fit with various degrees of accuracy: American, Chinese; Christian, Daoist, Confucian; populist, contrarian, skeptic, libertarian (small “l”); a liminal provincial in America, the New Rome.

About the Narrator…

John designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. His work has been published at Boston Review, Asimov’s and Tor.com. His website is http://johnchu.net

Good Hunting
by Ken Liu

Night. Half moon. An occasional hoot from an owl. The merchant and his wife and all the servants had been sent away. The large house was eerily quiet. Father and I crouched behind the scholar’s rock in the courtyard. Through the rock’s many holes I could see the bedroom window of the merchant’s son. “Oh, Tsiao-jung, my sweet Tsiao-jung…” The young man’s feverish groans were pitiful. Half-delirious, he was tied to his bed for his own good, but Father had left a window open so that his plaintive cries could be carried by the breeze far over the rice paddies. “Do you think she really will come?” I whispered. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and this was my first hunt.

“She will,” Father said. “A _hulijing_ cannot resist the cries of the man she has bewitched.”

“Like how the Butterfly Lovers cannot resist each other?” I thought back to the folk opera troupe that had come through our village last fall.

“Not quite,” Father said. But he seemed to have trouble explaining why. “Just know that it’s not the same.”

I nodded, not sure I understood. But I remembered how the merchant and his wife had come to Father to ask for his help.

_”How shameful!” The merchant had muttered. “He’s not even nineteen. How could he have read so many sages’ books and still fall under the spell of such a creature?”_

_”There’s no shame in being entranced by the beauty and wiles of a _hulijing_,” Father had said. “Even the great scholar Wong Lai once spent three nights in the company of one, and he took first place at the Imperial Examinations. Your son just needs a little help.”_

_”You must save him,” the merchant’s wife had said, bowing like a chicken pecking at rice. “If this gets out, the matchmakers won’t touch him at all.”_

A _hulijing_ was a demon who stole hearts. I shuddered, worried if I would have the courage to face one.

Father put a warm hand on my shoulder, and I felt calmer. In his hand was Swallow Tail, a sword that had first been forged by our ancestor, General Lau Yip, thirteen generations ago. The sword was charged with hundreds of Daoist blessings and had drunk the blood of countless demons.

A passing cloud obscured the moon for a moment, throwing everything into darkness.

When the moon emerged again, I almost cried out.

There, in the courtyard, was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen.

EP360: Follow That Cathedral!

By Gareth Owens
Read by Pip Ballantine
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Immersion Book of Steampunk
All stories by Gareth Owens
All stories read by Pip Ballantine
Rated 13 and up

Follow that Cathedral!
By Gareth Owens

…and with that Pixie dived from the open door of the Zeppelin. The air around her suddenly becoming liquid, rushing over the smooth leather of her helmet and bringing tears to her eyes.

“Always some bloody thing!” she grinned into the gale, falling headlong towards the welcoming embraces of Mother Earth and Mother Russia below.

Siberian night enveloped her, storm filled frozen darkness, cloud shrouded full moon, and below, the steam powered lightning of The Iron Czar. A hissing, glowing, monster of a train, three storeys high, and even longer than the leviathan Fourteen Bags of Mischief hanging above.

Pixie saw the orange furnaces erupting sparks through the twin stacks, as if Hephaestus himself stoked on the imperial railways.

EP315: Clockwork Fagin

By Cory Doctorow
Read by Grant Baciocco
Discuss on our forums.
First appeared in Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories
Music by Clockwork Quartet
All stories by Cory Doctorow
All stories read by Grant Baciocco

This one is a long one! This is considered appropriate for kids 12 and up – it’s a YA story with one murder.

Clockwork Fagin
By Cory Doctorow

Monty Goldfarb walked into St Agatha’s like he owned the place, a superior look on the half of his face that was still intact, a spring in his step despite his steel left leg. And it wasn’t long before he *did* own the place, taken it over by simple murder and cunning artifice. It wasn’t long before he was my best friend and my master, too, and the master of all St Agatha’s, and didn’t he preside over a *golden* era in the history of that miserable place?

I’ve lived in St Agatha’s for six years, since I was 11 years old, when a reciprocating gear in the Muddy York Hall of Computing took off my right arm at the elbow. My Da had sent me off to Muddy York when Ma died of the consumption. He’d sold me into service of the Computers and I’d thrived in the big city, hadn’t cried, not even once, not even when Master Saunders beat me for playing kick-the-can with the other boys when I was meant to be polishing the brass. I didn’t cry when I lost my arm, nor when the barber-surgeon clamped me off and burned my stump with his medicinal tar.

I’ve seen every kind of boy and girl come to St Aggie’s — swaggering, scared, tough, meek. The burned ones are often the hardest to read, inscrutable beneath their scars. Old Grinder don’t care, though, not one bit. Angry or scared, burned and hobbling or swaggering and full of beans, the first thing he does when new meat turns up on his doorstep is tenderize it a little. That means a good long session with the belt — and Grinder doesn’t care where the strap lands, whole skin or fresh scars, it’s all the same to him — and then a night or two down the hole, where there’s no light and no warmth and nothing for company except for the big hairy Muddy York rats who’ll come and nibble at whatever’s left of you if you manage to fall asleep. It’s the blood, see, it draws them out.

Book Review: Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresault by Genevieve Valentine

Cover for MechaniqueIn a time of thousand-page fantasy epics, a little book like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is easy to overlook. I recommend making the effort to track it down. Mechanique is a beautifully written book. Genevieve Valentine says more with hints and suggestions than some authors can say in a thousand words of blunt narration. There is more truth in Mechanique than in other books twice its size.

Mechanique has been categorized “steampunk,” but it does not indulge in the Victorian nostalgia that marks the steampunk literature that I’m familiar with. The world of Mechanique is a post-war wasteland, where last scraps of civilization survive in walled cities. It is outside these cities that the Circus Tresaulti pitches its tents. Little George, the book’s first person narrator, is the circus’s advance scout, putting up posters and checking the mood of the inhabitants to see if they’re the kind of people who might enjoy a circus — or who would rather enjoy chasing a circus out of town.

The mechanical legs that Little George wears for these excursions are fake, but the core of the circus are its genuine half-mechanical performers. Women with metal bones, men with reinforced mechanical bodies, and, once, a man with mechanical wings. It sounds like a good deal — have your fragile and overheavy bones replaced with light, flexible copper and spend your days on a high-flying trapeze. The Boss doesn’t take just anyone, though, and being accepted by Boss and having the bones installed doesn’t mean you’ll survive being part of the act.

No one joins the Circus Tresaulti who isn’t at least a little bit broken. Valentine’s narrative is equally fractured, slipping from second person to third person, pausing in the present tense and then sliding back into the past. Little George narrates in first person. Elena and a few other characters narrate in third person. The reader also hears whispers and asides from another narrator, the voice of the storyteller, who points out when the characters aren’t quite being honest with themselves. The overall effect is strange, and could be off-putting for many readers. I found it entrancing.

Readers of Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies will already be familiar with stories about the Circus Tresaulti. All of those stories are available as podcasts: Study, for Solo Piano; The Finest Spectacle Anywhere; Bread and Circuses. If you’re unsure whether you’ll like Mechanique, give those a listen. The tone and the style of the narration does not change from the stories to the book. Valentine just pulls the curtain back a bit more in her novel, and lets her readers see things that she only hinted at in the short stories.

Mechanique steps away from traditional adult fantasy literature with its illustrations. I heartily approve of this trend. The artist who did the cover (and the promotional Tresaulti tickets) has done a handful of lovely black and white illustrations for the interior. One picture in particular that stands out in my mind is the drawing of Elena sitting alone in the big top, swinging back and forth on the trapeze and staring away into the darkness.

Mechanique is surreal. The narrative is nonlinear and the magic works because Boss says so. Readers looking for traditional fantasy narratives should probably look elsewhere. Fans of Genevieve Valentine, and those readers who are willing to take a risk, should buy a ticket for the Circus Tresaulti. They have beer in glasses, dancing girls, and mechanical marvels to shock and amaze you.

EP302: Flash Extravaganza

Winners of our 2010 Flash Contest!
London Iron by William R. Halliar (narrator Andrew Richardson)
Wheels of Blue Stilton by Nicholas J. Carter (narrator Christian Brady)
Light and Lies by Gideon Fostick (narrator- Mur Lafferty)
All Escape Pod Originals!
And we end with a grand “It’s Storytime” montage put together by Marshal Latham!
Discuss on our forums.

Book Review: “Agatha H. and the Airship City”, by Phil and Kaja Foglio

I love webcomics. I think Ozy and Millie is better than Calvin and Hobbes. I’m shocked that studios haven’t secured the rights to comics like Questionable Content, Something Positive, or even XKCD (wouldn’t that pair up well with Big Bang Theory). And for years I’ve been following the hilarious but slowly-told story of Sabrina Online. But despite all the webcomics I read, I’ve never taken the time for Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. I’d certainly heard of it; it just hasn’t yet found its way into my Google Reader.

So I think that makes me the right kind of person to review Agatha H. and the Airship City, by Phil and Kaja Foglio*. I mean, I had no idea that this was a “Girl Genius” novel to begin with, after all, until I actually received the book.

Agatha H., in one sentence: it’s a fun book. I immensely enjoyed reading it. It’s a madcap comic adventure combined with steampunk (or “gaslamp”, as the authors say on their site), a little Bas-Lag, and some well-used adventure fantasy tropes. The dialogue is funny and sharply-written — to be expected from authors who make popular comic strips — and the world is complex and fully-realized.

The novel retells the origin story of Agatha Clay, a young woman living in Transylvania in an alternate, steampunk style of Europe. “Sparks” — basically supervillains — held the continent in their grasp until Baron Wulfenbach showed up to impose order by any means necessary. When he and his son, Gilgamesh, show up at the University where Agatha works, a fight in the lab leads to Agatha’s mentor being killed and Agatha herself going on the run. Soon, though, she is captured by the Baron and brought to his castle, where she finds out that the world isn’t as black-and-white as she thought, and neither is the Baron.

I would say that, if this book suffers in any way, it’s that some humor conventions of webcomics just don’t translate into print all that well. Take, for example, the scene where Agatha and Gilgamesh are on an out-of-control flying machine. In a webcomic, you can have an entire conversation over the course of a strip or two while the heroine is plummeting to her death. But in the novel, it seemed as though they should’ve hit the ground long before Agatha attempted to fix the machine. Another instance: the underwear gag. I’ve seen it used quite successfully on television and in other comics, but after the shock of its first appearance, future ones felt somewhat forced.

But while those parts didn’t work, the rest of the book certainly did. I laughed a lot, and I definitely empathized with the characters — although one does pull a heel turn that I wasn’t expecting and really didn’t understand the point of, except to move the plot along. The fight scenes were well-written and well-choreographed, from Agatha’s swordfight with the princess to Von Pinn taking on a pirate queen to the Baron himself against the Slaver Wasps. A few genre conventions are turned on their heads (isn’t that right, Princess?), while others (like Agatha’s physical shape) are cheerfully indulged.

Toward the end, the book got really quick to read, and each time I turned the page I wondered how everything was going to get wrapped up. I felt like maybe there was room for another chapter, like the ending needed a little something more to be fully satisfying… but then, there’s plenty more to be written, especially if further adventures of Agatha are to be retold as novels. And hey, if not, I can always read the comics.

Overall, I like I said, the book was a lot of fun to read. I got through it fairly quickly, owing to the fast pace and the desire to find out just what the hell is happening to Agatha. Plus, the nuanced nature of the Baron added a layer to the story that some adventure novels just can’t pull off. Agatha H. and the Airship City is worth reading, and — at least, in my case — it got me interested in the Girl Genius comic as well.

After all, I have to know what happens next.

* For some reason, I feel like I’m used to seeing them credited as “Kaja and Phil Foglio”, so it seems weird to type it the other way. But Phil’s name comes first on the cover, so that’s how I’m putting it here.