Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.
This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.
I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.
A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“The Colonel and the Bee” by Patrick Canning is a steampunk adventure novel about a talented young acrobat called Beatrix who is trapped in a circus with an abusive ringmaster. When her skills are called upon to entertain some Swiss aristocrats, she seizes her opportunity to make her escape. She joins the enigmatic and rather promiscuous Colonel James Bacchus and becomes part of the crew of his enormous hot air balloon with four-storey accommodation called The Ox.
This is a rollicking story in the classic English adventure style where wit and ingenuity repeatedly save the day. Beatrix is a great character and I really enjoyed watching her character grow throughout the book. The interplay between her and the Colonel is very engaging and Beatrix slowly gains the confidence and friendships she needs to help solve the riddle and save the day. It is hard to tackle a genre and historical period that relies a lot on British imperialism, but I felt like Canning did a good job preserving the spirit of these types of stories while excluding some of the more racially problematic things typical of the time.
It is important to know that this is an adventure story, so it is action, action, action almost the entire time. I’m not huge on action novels, so my favourite parts were during the downtime when Beatrix and the Colonel were having heart to hearts on The Ox. I did find some of the action a little relentless, as enjoyable as the riddles and the intrigue was.
A new spin on a favourite style of story, this was a fun, enjoyable read.
If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!
“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.
This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.
Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.
I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.
A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.
“Bodacious Creed: A Steampunk Zombie Western” by Jonathan Fesmire is exactly that: a steampunk, zombie western. The story is about US Marshal James Creed who arrives in 1876 Santa Cruz, California, USA to assist with a murder investigation. One of the most successful entrepreneurs in town is Anna Lynn Boyd, a former sex worker and brothel madam who has a secret profession: inventor. When Anna hears that Creed is in town, she swiftly tries to arrange a meeting to reconnect over a lost past. However, with the town rife with bounty hunters, a criminal underground, sex work politics, business deals and automatons, Anna’s plans go very awry.
This is a fun, action-packed novel with an interesting premise. Fesmire draws heavily on his hometown for inspiration for the book’s setting which brings a real sense of authenticity to the story (despite the steampunk zombie setting). I really liked the character of Anna, and most of the novel hangs on her genius and her compassion. The book deals with some complicated moral questions and the story is kept alive by the unresolved relationship between Anna and Creed. I don’t want to give too much away, but I really loved the coyote later on in the story.
I think the only thing that I found a bit challenging about this book was that the second half seemed quite long. The plot is both action-packed and convoluted and I felt like maybe a couple of the story lines could have been condensed.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in dipping your toe into the wild world of steampunk, this is a great place to start.
This book first caught my eye in Dymocks with its almost garish red page edges and its rather steampunk front cover. “The Mechanical” by Ian Tregillis is part alternative history, part steampunk, and all action.
The premise of this book is that the Netherlands, through a mixture of sorcery and science, was able to create a race of mechanical people known pejoratively as “Clakkers”. Through their mechanical slaves, the Netherlands has become a world power. This fact is resented in particular by the French government which has in effect been exiled to Canada. However a spanner gets thrown into the proverbial works when Jax, himself a Clakker, agrees to do a favour for Catholic priest Visser and sets the gears of change in motion. Meanwhile, in Canada, clever spymaster Berenice is trying to unlock the secrets of the Clakkers and with them, the secrets of the Dutch empire.
“The Mechanical” is a great read, there’s no doubt. The concept is original, the way history is woven with speculation is fantastic and the investigation into the concept of free will is brilliant. There is a lot going on in this book and it is quite fast paced (though there are some areas that drag a little).
However, there was one thing that I just couldn’t get past: the violence. It doesn’t seem like an accident that this book is blood-red with blood-red pages; it is extremely an extremely violent book. I think I was a little shocked because it is incredibly rare for the books I read to be so graphic in their depictions of fights, battles and war. In addition to that, some of the lengths that characters go to in order to explore the idea of free will are also quite disturbing. Even though I could recognise that this book was clever, I could not ignore how uncomfortable it made me feel at times.
If you’re looking for an original, steampunk, sci-fi/fantasy action novel: look no further, this is the one for you. However, if you’re a bit squeamish, maybe consider giving this one a miss.