Dec 27, 2013

Top 5 Steampunk Reads of 2013

This year was a tough one for steampunk. While precious few steampunk writers continue to produce quality work, from Gail Carriger's manga editions of The Parasol Protectorate and her new Finishing School series, Cherie Priest's ongoing Clockwork Century (of which I am two books behind - I have no doubt Fiddlehead would have been on this list given how much I enjoy Priest's books), and Mark Hodder with Burton and Swinburne sequels, new steampunk voices worth reading in 2013 were rare. By fall, I despaired of being able to construct a proper top list. Arthur Slade wrapped up his awesome Hunchback Assignments series last year with Island of Doom, and no YA steampunk series really fills the void left by Slade, Westerfeld, Reeve, and Oppel. Friends in the publishing industry have told me that the market was flooded by so much poorly-written steampunk, that the term has become somewhat synonymous with B-grade fiction. Much of what I read this year corroborated that claim; rather than give bad reviews to new authors, I chose to simply not review their work. I'd rather recommend what's worth reading than bash what isn't. The Internet is full of invective, and I'd prefer my blog not be a space that perpetuates pointless negativity. To that end, my top 5 steampunk reads are outside the big steampunk series: Hodder's The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi could easily have made the list, but if you're a regular here, you don't need me to tell you Hodder is awesome anymore: likewise Priest, Carriger, and Gilman. Instead, aside from Nemo: Heart of Ice, I chose my favorite reads that were outside the pale of popular steampunk reading. Blaylock, despite being called a legend by his marketing people, is still vastly underappreciated in speculative literature. That said, none of these are courtesy recommendations. They are genuinely awesome books, well worth your attention.
  1. Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill: The top spot for this year's best steampunk read has to go to Moore and O'Neill, for redeeming themselves after the brilliant-but-far-too-esoteric Century: 1910, the last League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book to feature Janni, Captain Nemo's daughter, as a key character. Heart of Ice is a mash-up on par with the earliest League books for accessibility, intertextuality, and sheer-icy fun. Moore mixes At the Mountains of Madness, She, Eddisonades, and Tom Swift in an adventure across the Antarctic. Nemo + Nameless Terror = Happy Reader. And to think, I was once told steampunk's future didn't lie in mashups with Lovecraft. 
  2. Luminous Chaos by Jean-Christophe Valtat - My greatest challenge as a book-blogger is that I hate having to read books at a breakneck pace to review them in time for their release. Thankfully, the folks who sent me a review copy of Luminous Chaos made no such demands, and I was able to savor Jean-Christophe Valtat's exquisite prose. Comparisons have been made between Valtat and Pynchon, and insofar as Pynchon's Against the Day, I concur. Luminous Chaos is easily the most literary work of steampunk I've read since Dexter Palmer's disappointing Dream of Perpetual Motion. Where Palmer tried too hard to be profound, Valtat revels in the absurdity of the steampunk aesthetic, revealing one batshit-crazy idea after another. However, Valtat's gorgeous writing mediates the absurdity as something wondrous and beautiful. Highly recommended for those expecting more from steampunk than the average adventure tales are delivering.
  3. Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff - While I know that some critics see Kristoff's work as cultural appropriation and/or Victorientalism, I have trouble with how earnest the Lotus War series is. I'm also nonplussed that so much attention is focused on minor foibles of creating a secondary world based on fantasy Japan, rather than celebrating his frequent use of strong female characters or his eco-criticism. Kristoff hamstrings his heroine Yukiko with simultaneous problem and insight: she learns why her father became an addict, and why she faces the same potential future. Rather than simply resorting to force/violence or heartbreak/retribution as drama, Kristoff gives Yukiko an inner battle, rendering her physical challenges and adventures all the more desperate. I remain a dedicated fan of this series, and eagerly anticipate the next installment, which is much more than I can say for many steampunk series.
  4. The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock - Many of Blaylock's trademarks are present here: use of Mayhew's dirty and destitute London denizens, a motley crew of Everymen, and St. Ives once again as the reluctant hero. But this book brings the darkness of Blaylock's horror novels to his steampunk London, with a Narbondo more wicked than ever before. Combining the best of what I love in Blaylock's writing, The Aylesford Skull is one of his best steampunk offerings. FULL REVIEW HERE.
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  5. Steampunk Wells by H.G. Wells and Zdenko Basic: While I consider H.G. Wells's Time Machine and War of the Worlds early SF, not steampunk, RP Classics' omnibus edition certainly puts the steampunk aesthetic to good use, and for that, I'm including it in my top five list for this year. RP Classics' earlier offerings of Steampunk Poe and Steampunk Frankenstein were also laudatory in this way, but I think series artist Zdenko Basic's art works best with Wells's visions. It's really Basic's art that makes the series steampunk. The texts are pure originals: Shelley, Poe, and Wells. And while Basic's art is great eye-candy, his rendering of War of the Worlds in Steampunk Wells is spot-on. He really captures the violence and darkness of Wells's vision. Kudos to RP Classics for finding a sharp way of introducing a new generation to these classic books. 

I also want to give a shout-out to Trent Jamison's Roil and Night Engines, which weren't published in 2013, but were among my favourite steampunk-related reads this year. 

And while this marks the end of the five year journey I began in the fall of 2008, it does not mark the end of my steampunk research. I will continue to read and study steampunk, along with my other speculative interests. I owe the steampunk community a huge debt, and for that I will always be very thankful. I look forward to journeying with you all beyond the worlds of steampunk, into the larger worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror!

2 comments:

  1. Will have to add some of these to the wish list. Is Luminous Chaos a translation of Aurorarama or a new book entirely?

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  2. Thanks for your work, Mike, as well as your recommendations. As I already told you via Twitter, I like watching this space and using it as a guide -and then taking my own decisions, as I think it should be. I'll make sure to check your top five... even though I'm afraid if the gloomy Kinslayer!

    And have a happy new year too, by the way!

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