Mar 9, 2013

The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross

I was given a signed advance copy of Kady Cross's The Girl in the Steel Corset when I presented at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition in Toronto in 2011. Studying steampunk over the past four years has taught me not to judge books by their cover or imprint, but Harlequin Teen had me expecting something generic and insipid. Consequently, since it wasn't an ARC I'd been sent with the express purpose of reviewing, and because I never lack for romance and erotica reading to fill the February schedule, I left Girl in the Steel Corset on the shelf. I picked it up as my nightly reading to my wife (a tradition we started with Harry Potter over a decade ago) in the lull between books four and five of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate. My low expectations were exceeded in the first chapter, so I adjusted them. Those expectations were exceeded, followed by repeated adjustments, until I can say, without reservation, that Girl in the Steel Corset stands among the best of romantic steampunk adventure, YA or otherwise. In short, don't judge this book by its lovely cover. At no point in reading Girl in the Steel Corset have I felt like I was reading Chick-Lit for Teens. The only teen reference that kept coming to mind was DC comics' The New Teen Titans in the 1980s, when George Perez was illustrating it, or X-men from the same period,  done steampunk style. Once again, as with Seleste deLaney's Badlands, I had some burning questions, and Kady Cross was kind enough to take time out of her busy writing schedule to talk to me about the first book in The Steampunk Chronicles.

Mike Perschon: Were you consciously creating a steampunked Super Team when you went about writing Girl in the Steel Corset? What, if any, were your comic book inspirations here?

Kady Cross: I pitched the series as 'Teen X-Men meets League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' minus the extreme violence. I started reading X-Men when I was... oh, seven or eight? I remember the first time I saw Dark Phoenix! I remember reading X-Men, the Age of Apocalypse, especially with Chris Bacholo's style, Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen...I don't read comics much these days, but I still love them. I was a little kid in the 70s, but I watched Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, those awful live action Superman and Captain America shows, The Greatest American Hero... When friends would play 'pretend' I always wanted to be Jean Grey or Ororo. My uncle used to call me Jamie Summers.

Mike Perschon: I often played as the Six Million Dollar Man, and I know that generation of TV shows well. You seem to have created a steampunk version of Steve Austin in Sam. Not the Steve Austin as played by Lee Majors, who always seemed pretty content to have been brought back from the dead via technology, but the Steve Austin of the original Cyborg novel Martin Caidin, where Austin is angry and resentful to the point of attempted suicide about his bionic second life. Sam's angst and his fight with Finley was what got me thinking Teen Titans, since DC's Cyborg is another example of a character whose life is saved by technological prosthetics which he ends up having mixed feelings about.

Kady Cross: Oh my God! You totally figured out my basis for Sam! Actually, in the Kate Cross romances I've done for Signet I set each hero up as homages to Steve Austin, Wolverine and Han Solo! You are also right with the 'Cyborg' reference. Plus, I just love the conflict that comes from man vs machine -- something you'll see more of in #3 and definitely in #4. I think Sam is finally coming to terms with what he is, and that it doesn't make him a monster.

Mike Perschon: I'm interested in knowing how much of this is a fully aware inspiration, or just years of having this as the playtime foundation of a child. I know that a number of fictions I played as a child are fully formed in my mind.

Kady Cross: I have to think that there is some of that childhood play in my work. The heroes I loved then definitely make up the heroes I write now. Han Solo, Steve Austin, Jamie Summers, Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, Ororo Monroe, Wolverine, Gambit. I can't write a character that doesn't have at least a bit of sarcasm or smart-ass about them. And I find it next to impossible to write a weak woman -- not emotionally, but physically.

Mike Perschon: It says you learned one of the foundational concepts of writing, I suppose - crisis and contrivance! Writers contrive crises for their characters - even the most realistic writers. It isn't just the ones riffing off SF and comic books. Even though I've been doing a yearly focus on romance at my blog, I'm still really new to the genre as a whole. My specialization is speculative literature. So I expect an SF or fantasy novel to run 400 pages, but I'd not expected that in a Harlequin. The stereotyped image of the Harlequin romance is the slim little paperback with the formula plot. How is it that your romance, one specifically targeted to teens no less, is so long? Is this the result of the mash-up of romance and SF, with the SF element filling out the pages the romance doesn't occupy and vice versa, or am I just talking like the neophyte I am?

Kady Cross: The books you are thinking of are the Harlequin romances that are called 'category' books. They'll have titles such as "Harlequin Presents" or "Harlequin American" or "Harlequin Intrigue" -- that sets them up as a particular category. Those books are usually around 70k in word count (I think), and they are the same as other Harlequin books in that readers know what kind of story they will get when they pick them up. It's actually kind of ingenious because the brand is so identifiable. But, Harlequin does other stuff as well. They also own Mira, which is a big imprint. And they own the imprint that publishes the Mac Bolan books. Now, to add to the confusion, each 'category' has its own set of editorial staff, though editors can edit for all lines.
Now, Harlequin Teen is a imprint owned by Harlequin, but it's not really under the romance umbrella at all. It is its own division, for lack of better term. So, it was set up to be more like a traditional YA press. So, the books have different levels of romance, angst, etc. And the word count varies as well.
So, to answer your question - my books are long because the teen line is not modeled after the typical Harlequin category imprints.

Mike Perschon: How about the difficulty of writing within the rumored strict guidelines of Harlequin? I've been told by romance writers that this is very challenging, contrary to the popular opinion so many people have that "they could write a formula romance, no problem." Are those parameters set for you? Were there restrictions on the world you could build as a Teen Harlequin writer?

Kady Cross: Yes, writing for Harlequin's lines can pay very well and allow an author to write a ton of books, but there are parameters for the categories. The reader wants a particular thing and you have to deliver. Romance is sort of like that because you HAVE to have that happy ending. I find some houses very strict in what they want. I used to write for Avon but I ended up leaving because I didn't want to write what they wanted -- what they thought they could sell. They do very well with Regency romance, but I was done with all that.
Harlequin Teen has never told me I couldn't do something. That's what's great about writing YA -- anything goes. Fiction is becoming more like that again, romance as well. I know a lot of people are scared of the industry right now, but I think it's a grand time to be a writer. These self-pubs that are doing so well are forcing publishers to take chances they wouldn't have normally taken.

Mike Perschon: I recently talked with Seleste deLaney, the author of Badlands, about the speed with which characters fall in love in romance. It's like the hyperbolized action of Mac Bolan (and while it was a surprise that Harlequin has that imprint, it makes sense - again, those books follow a very tight formula!) translated into the world of attraction rather than violence. Yet your characters are very slow burn in their romantic tension. Is that something endemic to YA romance, or is this a Kady Cross propensity?

Kady Cross: I so appreciate that you enjoyed the slow build to romance. I didn't think it made sense for them to be madly in love by the end of the book. Or even by the end of Book 2, Girl in the Clockwork Collar, though it's building. The physical side of their attraction comes out more in Book 3, and so by the events of Book 4 they will be so involved that Finley will risk her life to bring Griffin back. That's the end of the spoilers!


Mike Perschon: Those are pretty serious spoilers!
I'm sure you've been asked this before, but I'm curious for myself. Was there anything of Ali Larter as Niki Sanders on Heroes that ended up in the construction of Finley Jayne? Or was this a case of having similar starting points? After all the Incredible Hulk was Stan Lee's answer to Jekyll and Hyde, and Niki Sanders was the Hulk for Heroes. I should add that I really appreciated how you made Finley's father's story the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, rather than making her the daughter of Jekyll. Much as I appreciate recursive fantasy, I like that you're creating your universe whole cloth.

Kady Cross: I didn't have Ally's character from Heroes in mind for Finley. She was definitely all Jekyll and Hyde for me. The Hulk has never been a favorite of mine, so I didn't think of that all. However, I will admit that there's a little Batman in Griffin.

Mike Perschon: What has the response been from the steampunk community, or is the fan-base for Girl in the Steel Corset broader than that? I think this first outing in this series is great, and refused to skim-read it, because I enjoyed it so much.

Kady Cross: As for the community... Well, the Steampunk folks have been great, except for a couple of not-worth-mentioning exceptions. However, I've gotten tons of notes from people who say that Steel Corset was their first Steampunk book. Plus, I get people who read Cassandra Clare's books first. So, I'd hazard a guess that maybe 30% of my readership is from within the Steampunk community -- if that.

Mike Perschon: Well, I love the book, and if most of your readers are outside the steampunk scene, all the better. Steampunk shouldn't be a genre ghetto, and writers and readers from outside the so-called scene are what keeps it fresh. Readers interested in the Steampunk Chronicles series should know that in addition to Girl in the Clockwork Collar, Kady Cross has the third book, Girl with the Iron Touch, coming out this May.

1 comment:

  1. This was a steampunk masterpiece! Highly imaginative, fantastic writing, funny, dangerous and extremely entertaining. It was fast-paced, with a cast of amazing characters with enough fantasy to keep even the most toughest fantasy fan happy. I loved this book!
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