Dec 26, 2009

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming


I begin this post with a necessary digression. When Steampunk Scholar began as a blog, I hadn't really nailed down its purpose, other than to find a space to write about my dissertation musings and accumulate something approximating an annotated bibliography. After I reviewed Jay Lake's Mainspring, I realized that the web really didn't need another review website. One of the main premises of good writing is to add something to the discourse on the subject you're writing about. With a million plus bloggers giving their utterly subjective opinion on a book, I felt another would be superfluous. Even my own personal blog was more reflective about films than review-oriented. Of course, the line blurs, as sometimes in my assessment of the steampunk, I must comment on whether or not the command of the aesthetic was masterful or lacking. While my bias is always present, I do my best to speak about the writing in a fair and objective manner: I try to assess the text on its terms, not the ones I lay out for it through my expectations.

After the few years I've had teaching critical reading and writing, I'm convinced that few people read books or watch movie in this way. Moviegoers arrive at theaters with subjective expectations and, when they find the film fails to meet those expectations, they write it off: "It sucked." I hear this phrase dubiously leveled at all manner of film. When Roger Ebert reviewed Fellowship of the Ring, he commented on how Peter Jackson's cinematic hobbits didn't meet his expectations, based upon his experience of Tolkien's literary hobbits. At the time, I remember thinking, "Well, you're not a literary critic, are you? So review the movie, and stop talking about the book" (I detest assessing the value of a movie on slavish adherence to the book - I far prefer Tim Powers' statement that if the adaptation is nothing like the book, but well done, then we have two great stories).  Further, you weren't there to see if Peter Jackson had stolen your memories of hobbits and rendered them on the big screen: you were there to review the movie in front of you.

I feel much the same way about most reviews of books, which tell me little about the book, but a great deal about what the reader thought the book would/should/could be. "It just didn't work for me" has to be one of the vaguest, most useless phrases in the assessment of a narrative's value. In reading over reviews for Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, I saw numerous statements of this kind. People's expectations weren't met, or they thought he glossed over the Tesla/Edison storyline, or they thought he spent too much time in wordy descriptions. In other words, they wanted to read another book. They were reading the text on their own terms. One review commented on the ending by saying, "no one likes a cliffhanger." This is neither true of readers, many of whom like a cliffhanger ending just fine, nor fair to the book, which does not have a cliffhanger ending. It has an ambiguous ending, much in the style of Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist. As with Fundamentalist, a close reading of The Kingdom of Ohio has already revealed a great deal about what happens after the text ends. Not enough to say definitively, but enough to conjecture probabilities. Many readers like this sort of ending, because they're allowed to playfully insert their own endings. Here, the writer allows the reader to engage in expectation without the potential disappointment certainty can result in. While I can't say that all reviews of Kingdom of Ohio do so, I would say that many of them make the same mistake many readers do: they ingest words and denotative meanings without attention to connotation or construction. In other words, they grade books and films on plot instead of poetry, events instead of evocation.

To explain further, I'll run the risk of getting spammed by hate mail and quote a few reviewers in particular who had a problem with Flaming's use of history: "Too (sp) make matters worse, Flaming stumbles over some inexcusable historical errors which, while not critical to the misguided plot, were still annoying." I'm not sure which historical errors bothered this reader, but I would argue Flaming didn't screw up history--he was dropping hints throughout that the world the narrator is speaking from is not ours. The narrator mentions two game shows, Wheel of Jeopardy, and Price it Right. A reader skimming for plot content will miss a detail like this, because the names are so similar to the real shows they reference, that the brain almost doesn't register seeing them. Further, the narrator refers to TV game shows as "the last bastions of absolute truth" because they "stand by a single correct answer for each question" (30). In the same way that the revamped Trek refuses to be bogged down with the past mythology, Flaming has allowed for historical digressions which are not inaccuracies in his narrative, but keys to the point of the novel.

Readers looking for plot as the final arbiter of quality often miss the point. Consider the following:
"The story is stranded in a morass of superfluous detail. For instance, the world of this novel is exactly like our past (complete with starring roles for some of the preeminent figures of the time: J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla), except for one major thing: In the novel, there was once a "Kingdom of Ohio," all but forgotten now. It was literally a piece of land sold to a French family during the early part of America's history, and ruled within this county's borders as its own kingdom (complete with King) for more than a century. It is this Kingdom that Cheri-Anne claims to be from, but really, what's the point?"
I can't say for certain, and I apologize for picking on these reviewers, but when students ask me "what's the point?" of short stories which are seemingly pointless, like John Updike's A&P, or Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", I tell them to go back to the text, and read it again, carefully. What concepts are repeated? What sorts of characters do we have? What is the setting? The tone? Consider all these things, and you can likely arrive at the theme of the work in front of you. It is at that point you will be able to assess whether the narrative was successful or not. The devil's in the supposedly "superfluous detail." In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," there are numerous detailed lists of military gear--many students on first read consider this superfluous detail. But it's not. It is essential to the theme of the short story, of the idea that intangible burdens, like unrequited love or responsibility for other's lives, are heavier than an M-60 and its ammunition.

Without laboriously unpacking the literary elements of character, setting, tone, etc., I'll simply state that the theme of The Kingdom of Ohio is the uncertainty of memory. While one reviewer suggested readers stick to H.G. Wells for a good time-travel novel (without ever really explaining why), it must be remembered that Wells's The Time Traveler was not good science fiction - Wells never explained his speculations with the obsessive detail that Verne did. He wrote a novel of ideas, of social commentary. The Kingdom of Ohio is, aside from being a romance, also a novel of ideas, exploring memory, possible worlds theory, and the difficulty of "knowing" history. The novel is exactly like our past (and our present), except that people are watching game shows with names that are familiar, but "incorrect." The reality of The Kingdom of Ohio is just off center--like Middle-Earth, it too is a secondary world, but not one so far removed from our own to immediately recognize it as such: "According to the physicist, other universes may exist alongside our own: an infinite number of worlds, one for each possible variation on our own reality." (230). This speaks not only to possible worlds theory, but also to the idea of personal agency and choice, which are arguably always themes in alternate histories: "After all...if free will exists, it's a decision that we make between futures." (320)

Passages about the difficulty of memory are numerous, and while Flaming is no Umberto Eco or Borges, I'd offer that he does an admirable job in delivering these musings on the lacunae of remembrance:
"Whether beautiful or terrible, the past is always a ruin...When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories seem like artifacts from a lost civilization...Most of all I remember the summer twilight over the mountains and how, on certain evenings, just before the sun sank below the horizon, it cast rays so luminous and golden that they felt like a solid, enveloping closet into which a small boy could simply disappear. An intensity no light today seems to match." (1)
It should be noted that this first page, like many good writings, holds keys to the ending. The ideas of artifacts, doorways, and light will be explored in the final pages. Already, Flaming is laying the groundwork for the careful reader.

For those who mistook it for an attempt at science fiction, one need only read the narrator's admission that it is a tale "about science and faith, and the distance between the two." (5-6) While all of the quotations make for interesting commentary on many themes in the steampunk aesthetic, this one reminded me of the ongoing investigation I've had based on Lavie Tidhar's ideas about steampunk technology as magical technology. Steampunk isn't about delivering perfectly plausible technology, because steampunk isn't about high tech - it's about science and faith (we might substitute fantasy, or romanticism).

While The Kingdom of Ohio isn't purely steampunk, it has elements of the steampunk aesthetic beyond the magical technology. Any invocation of Edison and Tesla in most current fiction should be seen less as an historical reference, and more as a mythological one, to the idea that Edison and Tesla represent: technological optimism, the idea that anything could be accomplished. So when Flaming writes that "It's a story about conspiracies and struggles to reshape the world; about secret wars between men like J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla" (5) we probably shouldn't go expecting perfect historical authenticity. It's the appearance of authenticity that Flaming and steampunk are concerned with. As I've said before, it shouldn't be a matter of throwing historical accuracy to the wind, but it doesn't need precise accuracy. In fact, Ohio is arguing that we can't know the past with precision.
"I wasn't a scholar growing up, but I remember learning that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that the Civil War was about slavery. Now I'm told that Columbus was a "hegemonic exploiter" and that Mr. Lincoln's War was fought primarily for economic reasons." (29)
What's the truth about history when we keep rewriting our own? What difference does it make if I use real history or alternate history, when current historical criticism seems to doubt its own facts? Further, what difference does memory and history make in the immediacy of 21st century high-tech-plugged-in Ipod society? We don't stop to smell roses anymore.
"Thanks to the genius of human invention, things have sped up until I can hardly keep track anymore...we all seem to be fast-forwarding into a future where our memories become irrelevant relics from a useless and discarded past." (2)

"In fact...all this electronic wizardry only adds to our confusion, delivering inside scoops and verdicts about events that have hardly begun: a torrent of chatter moving at the speed of light, making it nearly impossible for any of the important things to be heard." (29)
The text itself is written in a way that begs the reader to slow down, and pay attention to the writing. Reviewers say this is slow-pacing, but this isn't an adventure story--it's a reflection of memory and love, and one should rarely rush along at a page-turning pace for such writing. We don't guzzle fine wine. Not if we know what we're about in discerning taste. I think the same is true for books like The Kingdom of Ohio, which reminded me a great deal of Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale on a much smaller scale.

And while the book ends ambiguously, still playing with the themes of memory and possible worlds, this isn't a spoiler. Books like Kingdom of Ohio aren't about the endings, they're about the journey. Modern readers too often forget this--it's not about knowing how it ends, because sometimes it doesn't end, and if you haven't taken the time to savor the text along the way, you are as disappointed as someone who rushes through Christmas dinner, only to find there isn't any dessert. And besides, we have the free will to not see last page as an ending, but another beginning, becoming what Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy call "co-creators in the making of meaning".

The Kingdom of Ohio goes on sale on December 31, and while I it's obviously not for everyone, I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it for anyone looking for a slow, pleasurable read.

Dec 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!


If you got extra money for Christmas and are unsure how to spend it, my best recommendation this year is to order a copy of VICTORY! by Greg Broadmore, the sequel to the Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory through the online book seller of your choice. I'll be writing about both of them in the next few weeks, but for now, enjoy the postcard Weta sent, summing up Broadmoor's humor rather nicely.

Dec 23, 2009

Cold Duty by J. Daniel Sawyer

Despite how Charles Dickens seems to feature as a pivotal precedent for the Steampunk aesthetic, the author's considerable influence on North American and UK Christmas traditions has not extended to steampunk Christmas stories. One has to look far and wide for steampunk Christmas images, and the literature is far more spartan. J. Daniel Sawyer's podcasted short story "Cold Duty" (to be released in a print anthology in 2010) is one of the only ones I have stumbled across, and thankfully, it's very good. While I definitely wanted to post something seasonal, I didn't want to compromise the integrity of the blog in the process.

I had the double-pleasure of listening all the way through "Cold Duty" on podcast through Steampod before recalling how I knew J. Daniel Sawyer. I had the honor of being on a panel about Victorian technology with Daniel at Steam Powered, along with Christopher Garcia. Dan and I had a couple of excellent chats that weekend, and I was glad to find out that his star was rising in steampunk circles.

As already stated, I liked "Cold Duty", which I first experienced as a podcast audiobook. The reader does an excellent job of conveying the narrator's voice, in accent and emotion with an authenticity that captures Sawyer's admirable writing style. One of my complaints with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is how the main characters lacked individual voices, and how the text overall was too contemporary - it didn't read nineteenth century. "Cold Duty" is packed with aphorisms and slang that provides verisimilitude without becoming inacessible to the modern reader. I had no trouble following the storyline, and understood the meaning of period phrases by their context. The presence of a highly personal voice is key to Sawyer's text, not only because it is told in first person, but because it is written as the transcript of a mix of journal entries and actual recordings on wax cylinders (of interest, an audiobook producer recently asked me if steampunk fans would buy an audiobook on a wax cylinder as a collectible - perhaps "Cold Duty" is the story for such an undertaking!).

It's the historical authenticity that sets "Cold Duty" apart from other steampunk short fiction I've read outside the two steampunk anthologies released so far. It feels like it takes place in a world as rich as that of The Difference Engine, or The Peshawar Lancers. It's difficult to say, due to the brevity of the medium of short story, but I never felt the secondary world of "Cold Duty" was clumsy or contrived. Sawyer has a strong enough knowledge of the nineteenth century to write comfortably in it. Good steampunk should understand history well enough to understand the ramifications of "the moment of the break" from our reality to the possible world, or else that break becomes a forward-acting deus ex machina, as is the case in Jonathan Green's Unnatural History.

Daniel was good enough to send me a text copy so I wouldn't have to to transcribe any quotes from the story from audiobook, but as I read it again, I was struck by how this is a story best left like a Christmas present - all wrapped up. Sure, I could tell you about how it has some great anachronistic technology, like the nearly-trope-status Babbage engine, or the enigmatic Gelusian room, but I wouldn't be able to say much about the latter without ruining the surprise. Yet, perhaps to entice you, I will leave this extended quotation, like a piece of torn wrapping paper where you can see some of the box peeking through, or perhaps like the sounds coming from within when you shake it. Get on over to Steampod and unwrap yourself a little bit of free Christmas steampunk.
In the fifty-seven London Christmases I seen, I reckon I've seen just about every kind there was. Plague years, snow years, wet years, years when everything changed and the world opened up, like this one.Never thought I'd see German industry in, but there it is across from my company. A strange sight, but maybe not the strangest. Not as strange as the year after the Ripper when everyone were afraid to stay out after dark, until the carolers came and filled the streets with music. The demons don't come out to play when the candles and holly is out.
I heard carolers today on my walk at Hyde Park. They stood in the middle of where the Crystal Palace used to stand, for the Great Exhibition. I only ever got to see photos of it, they tore it down before I arrived in the city. Sometimes, it's hard to remember being anywhere else.
The snow was fresh. The sounds of the city – the six-stroke steamolines, the hoof clops of horses on the sidewalk, the voices of lost people, sifted through the trees and the powder, carried on the wind, rushing through the trees like it were a cold steam. Their voices, singing “O Come Emmanuel,” sounded like God took the world's heartbreak and made it into a diamond, then wrapped it around a symphony. I don't know if I've ever heard anything so beautiful.

Get a print copy of "Cold Duty" and other J. Daniel Sawyer stories in Podthology!

Dec 22, 2009

Year One


What a great first year of the Steampunk Scholar. A year ago, I was writing the first drafts of papers that are currently awaiting publication. Now I'm editing the last of them for an end-of-the-year deadline. I wish I could have updated more in November, but marking papers and exams at work kept me buried. Thankfully, I was able to keep reading, and I've got some good research findings to post for my readers in the next few weeks as I enjoy some vacation time.

Speaking of readers, I'd like to say a huge thank-you to everyone who comes by the blog. When I first started the blog, I had no idea where it would go, or where it might take me. You've made Steampunk Scholar one of the go-to sites for steampunk information. I've inadvertently become many people's one-stop-blog for opinions on steampunk literature, which has been really good for me, as it helped focus my work. Every time I thought I should be writing on the fashion (Victoria's Secret models with steampunk wings!) or the Makers (I have so very much to say about Datamancer and Jake von Slatt!), someone would link to the blog, giving kudos for talking about the literature. Apparently I'm filling a niche, though I'd argue Cory Gross was doing it first! I'll do my best to continue to bring my thoughts on steampunk writing -- feedback isn't just welcome, it's heavily encouraged, as your thoughts help me focus mine.

The notoriety of the site has resulted in some cool opportunities, unlooked and unasked for: most recent, Canada's SPACE channel is doing a spot on steampunk and I might get interviewed for it. Talk about geek heaven - getting interviewed on national television for something you love? I must add that they're looking for rabid steampunk aficianados to interview or feature. As it was put to me, they're looking for "miss or mister steampunk." So if you're a maker, a collector, a costumer, and you want someone to film you, then contact me and tell me why you think SPACE should be contacting you, and I'll pass along the most promising applicants to the show.

Another cool opportunity came from Steamcon, where I interviewed Paul Guinan. I had decided to use Boilerplate as a textbook at Macewan University in the winter semester, and contacted Paul to let him know. Well, the next thing I knew, I was writing the official teacher's guide for Boilerplate! It's great to be part of bringing great steampunk-related material like this into the classroom. I'm a firm believer that literature studies should be enjoyable, and was one of the reasons I chose steampunk as my dissertation topic.

The "Steam Wars" and "Finding Nemo" papers are still forthcoming, but the publication dates for both draw ever-closer. In the meantime, I continue to write for Chris Garcia's Exhibition Hall. I'm doing a review of the new Abney Park disc for Exhibition Hall this month, so watch for that.

As I posted in my Steamcon updates, the blog has raised the visibility of what I'm doing. At Steam Powered, I was "the guy from Canada." A year later, I'm hanging with Jake von Slatt and Nathaniel Johnstone. I spent twenty years of my life trying to make it in music, with marginal success. I was a minister in various capacities for fifteen, and have some articles and published derision of Christian right-wingers to show for it. I've been a bonafide steampunk scholar for one year, and doors just keep opening. I don't quite know what to think about that, but given that it's Christmas, it certainly has a "fullness of time" sense to it. While I regret some of the things along the path, I don't regret where the path has taken me.   

Some final shout-outs to the people who have propelled this blog beyond my expectations. Thanks to: my advisor, Irene Sywenky, for extensions on a few deadlines, and for encouraging me to publish; Chris Garcia, who keeps treating me like I'm a celebrity, despite knowing many real ones; Jay Lake, whose link to my less-than-favorable review of Mainspring brought the largest number of hits to the site from a literature-related post; Jeff Vandermeer for timely advice; Jake von Slatt for encouraging my steampunk scholarship; Dru Pagliosotti and all the other steampunk scholars out there, for academic solidarity in this "frivolous" undertaking; Jha Goh for engaging debates; Cory Gross, my fellow Albertan, who keeps reminding me to keep it fun; Krzysztof, for feeding me the latest information and challenging my definitions; Gail Carriger, who keeps linking the site on Twitter; the people behind the conventions and conferences who keep having me speak; the authors who have sent ARCs (keep 'em coming!); everyone in Legion Fantastique--you are my first steampunk family; History Punk, for calling Steampunk Scholar his "new blog crush"; and of course, my wife Jenica, who has always supported my studies, but now enjoys coming along on the research trips.

Dec 18, 2009

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest


When Stefan Hantke wrote his article, "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk" in 1999, he warned against fixed definitions of the term: given "how quickly steampunk has fragmented into a bewildering variety of styles, critics would be best off considering their own definitions as working hypotheses, tentative, evolving fictions in themselves” (253). This has been borne out with my reading as well--each work studied produces some facet of steampunk's aesthetic, showing how the idea of steampunk wasn't something that sprang fully-formed from the mind of K.W. Jeter. The writers were forming the steampunk aesthetic, not necessarily setting out to write using that visual toolbox.

However, recent steampunk works seem to be taking from the toolbox as much as they add to it. Cherie Priest's Boneshaker provides a good example of how this works. The story itself is not original in terms of plot: the runaway son being pursued by a protective mother is at least as old as Hans Christian Andersen's Story of a Mother. Adding monsters to the mix echoes the film version of Silent Hill, while the setting of a walled Seattle filled with Boneshaker's colourful cast of characters reminds me of Escape from New York: "Once you go in, you don't come out." Like my assessment of Perdido Street Station, Priest takes familiar pop culture storylines and makes them unfamiliar in a steampunk setting.

Seattle is a prime target for a steampunk setting, given its reputation as a center of steampunk culture on the West coast, and Priest is to be commended for choosing the location, if only as a clever marketing ploy (which it isn't solely - Priest lives in Seattle, and is likely "writing what she knows"). Priest has a small legion of devoted fans already in steampunk culture, and the buzz about Boneshaker was considerable. I don't think any other steampunk book released in 2009 garnered as much anticipation. Setting Boneshaker in Seattle seems like tribute to the North American steampunk community, and it has paid off in pre-release buzz. Seattle works well on a story level in that it still constituted a frontier city in the late nineteenth century, far from seats of government and control. Boneshaker could not have happened in New York, since the story requires a level of lawlessness that, despite the infamous four corners, New York could not provide.

One might decry the lack of Victoriana, but that's what Priest brings to the toolkit - more American steampunk. It's not new, and I'm not only speaking of Wild, Wild West in either of its iterations: Priest joins the ranks of Joe. R. Lansdale, Lea Hernandez, Michael Chabon and Thomas Pynchon in steampunking the United States of the nineteenth century. Whatever steampunk "started" as, it has become an aesthetic of the nineteenth century - we might say the Victorian era, not just the Victorian culture. I would argue it was always this way--and thankfully, it's moving outside the Western boundaries, as evidenced by The Windup Girl.

At any rate, what Priest offers the study of the aesthetic is a book that seems to have gone out of its way to be steampunk. I haven't read a steampunk book yet which features characters actually wearing the ubiquitous brass goggles, but early on, Priest builds them into her storyline, in a way which echoes my own reflections on the goggles in Steam Wars: "All the workers wore goggles with polarized lenses. For reasons no one fully understood, such lenses allowed the wearer to see the dreaded Blight" (45).One has to chuckle at the "reasons no one fully understood." It's as though Priest is winking at the naysayers, letting them know she's aware of the jokes: the goggles do nothing? Hardly -- they are the steampunk equivalent of cyberpunk's mirrorshades - they permit visions into this alternate reality. Within Priest's alternate reality of Boneshaker, they become the means to avoid the dangerous zombie-creating yellow gas.

She includes the other steampunk icon as well, the airship, and like Moorcock, draws a line between the high-tech, shiny airships:

"The ships themselves came in assorted designs. Some were little more than hot air balloons with baskets held up low and close to the balloon's underbelly; and some were more impressive, with buckets that looked like the hull of a water-running vessel--but built onto a hydrogen tank and propelled with steam thrusters" (79)

And those of the sky pirates:
"These ships were of a different sort, less glossy and less uniform than the ones at the main dock. They were not so much manufactured as cobbled together from bits and pieces of other, sturdier, larger vessels" (81)

Ostentatious character names, and a steampunk villainous mastermind keep readers filling out their steampunk checklist:

"Dr. Minnericht's mask was as elaborate as Jeremiah Swakhammer's; but it made him look less like a mechanical animal than a clockwork corpse, with a steel skull knitted together from tiny pipes and valves. The mask covered everything from the crown of his head to his collarbones. Its faceplate featured a flat pair of goggles that were tinted a deep shade of blue, but illuminated from within so it appeared that his pupils were alight." (307)
Yet for all this steampunk-by-the-numbers, Boneshaker is not a typical steampunk narrative. It has zombies, which are the monsters of the nuclear age. Of all the anachronisms of Boneshaker, the zombies are perhaps the greatest oddity of all, the result of noxious fumes from the underworld. And it has family, which is also a bit of an anachronism in steampunk literature. Steampunk heroes are rarely family folk, with the exception of Sir Robert Bruce in Fitzpatrick's War. They are either orphans, widows, widowers, or serial monogamists. Which is a bit odd, considering how children gained an unprecedented status in society in the nineteenth century.

On this level, Boneshaker is refreshing. The premise intrigued me, and I enjoyed the first third of the book immensely. Sadly, the pace drags in the middle third, and I found the final pages unsatisfying. The level of threat from the zombies never matched the anticipation set out in the first chapters. I think zombie fiction should involve a fairly high and gory body count. Priest has a kindler, gentler zombie hand. While Priest excelled at the voice of Briar Wilkes, I found her son Ezekiel less-than-sympathetic: it's hard to care about a character who so willfully walks into harm's way. Perhaps the cast becomes too bloated, or maybe the number of meanderings through the underground of Seattle (Boing Boing called Boneshaker a "zombie steampunk mad-science dungeon crawl family adventure novel") simply became tedious: I haven't been able to pin down what didn't work for me. Perhaps, like Mainspring, it will deserve a second read and a different set of assessing goggles, but for the time being, I remain somewhat disappointed by the read.

That said, I'm pretty sure this is a "Your Mileage May Vary" reading experience, as I know there are many who think very highly of Boneshaker. I liked the idea, and given that Priest still has the hands-down best short description of steampunk in existence, I'm hopeful that she may yet have the hands-down best-steampunk-with-intention novel. I'm excited someone is unabashedly writing steampunk, and not gaslamp fantasy, gaslight romance, or some other neo-Victorian speculative derivation meant to keep them at some sort of aloof distance. Priest embraces steampunk whole-heartedly, and that's worth applause from me.
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