Steampunk continued riding high in 2010 with still more innovative releases – Priest’s Dreadnought, Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, Jay Lake’s Pinion, The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, etc. The term “steampunk” was even added to the newest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Just because a novel has an airship in it or a few handmade gadgets, doesn’t make it steampunk.
Steampunk, for me at least, has always been about exploring humankind’s ingenuity and courage in the face of adversity, about embracing that sense of scientific wonder. Ultimately, it’s about craftsmanship, creating one-of-a-kind storylines.
The narrative frontier of steampunk is virtually endless: so why so many unoriginal – safe – storylines?
Are the glory days of steampunk really over?
My answer to that: not as long as Cherie Priest continues writing her Clockwork Century novels.
These interconnected stories – all set in an alternate 19th century America where the Civil War is still underway – are simply masterful; from the cast of extraordinarily developed characters, to the unparalleled world building, to the breathtakingly grand scale overall story arc.
Rector Sherman is a hardcore drug addict – he is addicted to sap, a deadly drug made from the poisoned air inside the city walls. Orphaned when the Boneshaker hit Seattle sixteen years earlier, he has lived in an orphanage outside of the walls ever since. But now, after turning 18, he is officially an adult and on his own. Delusional, and quite possibly half-dead, Rector makes his way inside the walled city looking for a fix – and instead finds existential sobriety.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century is the steampunk equivalent to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The narrative scope and thematic depth of this saga is just mind-boggling.
But it’s her intimate, insightful, and lyrical writing style that immerses the reader fully into her world:
“And on the other side they saw more dead things – larger dead things. Trees that had once been mighty were now reduced to crumbling trunks, and the odd monument or piece of statuary had gone streaked and pitted from prolonged exposure to the gas. To the left they saw curving walkways with seams that had succumbed to rubble, and a large round pond with nothing inside it but a yellow-black muck… Nothing could grow in the Blight gas, and therefore nothing became overgrown. It could only rot where once it had thrived.”
I’ve found that most readers either love steampunk or hate it. But before passing judgment either way, do yourself a favor and read Priest’s Clockwork Century. It’s unarguably the best steampunk saga ever written – and hopefully it will help keep the steampunk movement afloat for many years to come.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgoatallen and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.