I’m really behind on discussing “recently read books”, since I already finished one and a half books since this one. Still, here it is:
This is exactly the sort of book that the recent Steampunk backlash is aimed at. It uses Steampunk tropes and a Steampunk setting, but the story it tells is a romance. It was not published by an SFF publisher. And the author is not an SFF insider, even though she has written more SFF novels (18, if I counted correctly) than many a recent Hugo winner. In short, Steamed is a classic case of “someone else playing in the SFF sandbox”. However, since I research works mixing elements of SFF and romance, Steamed is exactly the sort of book I’m looking for.
However, I have to admit that I wanted to like this book a lot more than I eventually did. The premise – hunky computer nerd and Steampunk fan as well as his somewhat flaky sister find themselves in a Steampunk world following a lab accident – was absolutely fantastic and full of potential. The execution, however, was lacking in places.
The main reason why a SFF romance hybrid – and I have read a lot of them over the past two years or so – does not work is that the balance between the science fiction or fantasy elements and the romance is off. If the balance tilts too far towards to SF/fantasy side, you may get a decent or even great piece of speculative fiction*, alas one that doesn’t work as a romance. If the balance tilts too far towards the romance end of the spectrum, the result is often a highly unsatisfying book that in spite of engaging characters could have been so much more. Steamed is a classic example of the latter.
Protagonists and dual first person narrators Jack Fletcher, computer specialist, Quaker and Steampunk fan from our world, and Octavia Pyle, a no-nonsense airship captain from an alternate Steampunk universe, are likable and engaging characters. They have chemistry and their interactions are fun to watch. There are some nice moments of culture clash, e.g. when Jack discovers that wearing a t-shirt saying “Airship pirates” (the name of a band Jack likes) is not a good idea in a world where there actually are airship pirates. Meanwhile, Octavia is utterly baffled by Jack’s insistence that she wear her corset outside her clothes and by his fascination with goggles. However, even though Jack and Octavia eventually did declare their love for each other, I had trouble believing that their relationship had grown between mutual attraction and lust. Because Jack and Octavia literally fall in lust at first sight and can’t keep their hands off each other for much of the book.
Now the sex scenes between Jack and Octavia were well written and original. The culture clash is used to good effect here, e.g. Jack’s reaction to being faced with a condom made of sheep guts or Octavia’s reliance on Victorian sex education pamphlets for sexual techniques. Those sex education pamphlets were a real phenomenon BTW. German adventure and western writer Karl May penned one of them early in his writing career. The result, entitled Das Buch der Liebe (The book of love), was faithfully reprinted in the annotated edition of May’s collected works.
But while the intimate scenes between Jack and Octavia are enjoyable and well written, there are so many of them that they threaten to take over the book. Now I’ve had to deal with characters unable to keep their hands off each other myself and it can be difficult to reign them in. But Jack and Octavia have sex in the most inappropriate of situations. They have sex while waiting for word about what’s to happen to Jack’s sister, who has been randomly arrested on the street. And, to top it all, they have sex in a narrow, dark and dirty secret passage in the royal palace, while on their way to plead with the Emperor to spare the life of the sister who is about to be hanged. As a result, particularly Jack comes across as someone who does his thinking with his dangly bit, because no sane person would consider having sex while trying to save his sister from the gallows. What is more, when Jack and Octavia are discovered and arrested in the secret passage, mistaken for assassins and sentenced to hang as well, I couldn’t even feel sorry for them. After all, it only serves them right, if their priorities are that screwed (quite literally).
The instant lust between Jack and Octavia overwhelms everything else in the book. It overwhelms learning more about Jack and Octavia outside the bedroom, e.g. I wished that Jack’s Quaker beliefs would have been more fleshed out. It overwhelms the secondary characters, Jack’s sister and the members of Octavia’s crew, all of whom are potentially interesting characters, yet remain strangely vague. This is a pity, because several of the crewmembers are intriguing. I wanted to learn more about Mr Mowen, the chief engineer, about the mysterious Mr Llama who keeps appearing and disappearing mysteriously (the mystery is never cleared up, either), about Mr Ho, first name Beatrice, the only other female member of the crew, etc… What is more, certain secondary characters never manage to rise above the cliché level. Jack’s sister Hallie (short for Hallelujah) comes across as silly and shallow with hardly any redeeming features. Mr Christian, the first officer with the tendency to faint in inappropriate moments, remains merely comic relief and Mr Piper, another crewmember, mainly exists to tell outrageous anecdotes about his sexual exploits. And then there is the sad matter of Mr Francisco, a crewmember who harbours an unrequited crush on Octavia and manages to hit every stupid latin lover cliché there is. The lovelorn Mr Francisco is about as cliched as Pepé Le Pew or the Puss in Boots character from the Shrek films. But unlike them, Mr Francisco not supposed to be a cartoon character.
Steamed also suffers from what is one of my pet peeves with badly balanced romance hybrids, the tendency to let potentially exciting action sequences happen off stage, while elaborating on the characters pining and lusting for each other and eventually having sex in great detail. Several years ago, I read a regency romance, the title of which I have long since forgotten, in which the hero was chasing spies or smugglers or some such lowlives. The hero comes home to his heroine, explains in two short paragraphs how he hunted down the spies/smugglers, had to grapple down the side of a cliff, was shot at, got into a sword fight, arrested the lowlives and handed them over to the magistrate. Whereupon he proceeded to have three pages of sex with the heroine. That’s right, the book had all of the action occurring off-stage and gave us three pages of a very unimaginative sex scene instead.
Steamed is similar in this respect, though the sex is at least engaging enough not to skip. Katie MacAlister skips over the scene where Hallie is arrested by the Emperor’s men, while Jack narrowly managed to escape them. She skips over Jack’s and Octavia’s escape, when they are briefly captured by the enemies of the Empire. She even skips over Jack, Octavia and Hallie being saved from the gallows at the very last second (okay, that’s theoretically a spoiler, though it’s bloody obvious they weren’t going to be executed – it is a romance after all) in a daring rescue attempt by Octavia’s crew. So many potentially exciting scenes wasted just to see Jack repeatedly trying and succeeding to get into Octavia’s corset.
One aspect that usually suffers when the balance between speculative and romance elements is off in a hybrid work is the worldbuilding. SF and fantasy are both worldbuilding heavy genres, romance often much less so. Steamed is better than some other examples I have read, since there actually is quite a bit of worldbuilding going on in the background. However, the reader only ever gets the Cliff’s Notes version that Octavia relates to Jack. The parallel Steampunk world has airships and vaguely defined ether technology, but electricity is considered dangerous. Victorian fashions and mores lasted well into the early 21st century. There is a British Empire that includes Italy and is seeking an alliance with Prussia with marriage of the Emperor William with a Prussian princess. There was a war with America, there is an ongoing conflict with a rebel group named the Black Hand of which half the characters are members, usually unbeknowst to each other. There also is an external enemy, a rival empire in the Middle East, named the Moghuls. Like Mr Francisco, the Moghuls are unfortunate orientalist stereotypes, though a description of the Moghul leader gives us the wonderful phrase “a mustache the size of a dachshund”. At least, the Moghuls aren’t the villains in this novel, they are just another obstacle.
So while the worldbuilding exists in the background, it is never really fleshed out. And as for the lack of social conscience of the Steampunk genre, that was at the heart of the recent controversy, Steamed doesn’t really do much to dispel the accusation that Steampunk doesn’t have a social conscience. Because the world in which Jack and Hallie find themselves is obviously not a good place. There is a raging civil war, for starters. People are snatched off the streets and sentences to be hanged for the enjoyment of the Emperor. The Emperor is self-absorbed and sadistic (he likes watching people hang for entertainment), while the rebel leader opposing him is no less self-absorbed. There is widespread poverty, which shocks both Hallie (in pretty much the only scene that made her come across as something other than shallow) and Jack. The heroine Octavia and half of the other characters are engaged in the rebellion against the Emperor in some form. And yet all of those details are glossed over, while Octavia and Jack had some more sex.
Steamed is one of those books that has everything going for them: Interesting and likable characters, decent worldbuilding, an intriguing setting, a great premise. And yet the result falls flat. It’s not that Steamed is a bad book, because it’s not. It just could have been so much better.
*Of course, it might also be absolutely dreadful.