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review 2014-12-12 17:16
Thunderdome: God Save the Queen v. Greyfriar
God Save the Queen - Kate Locke
The Greyfriar - Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith

I've been thinking about mood and reading recently, although maybe that's the wrong way to put it. My Summer of Steampunk has morphed into Steampunk Planet (which I now think I'm ready to get off, thank you), and I'm still churning through the lower midlist of steampunk titles available at my library. (Hey, whatever, she said defensively; it's been a bad year.) I rarely say anything about these here books, because they are all so of a piece in terms of ornament and prose style, protagonist and plot. But I do definitely have my preferences, and I've been curious what that thing is between the book I quit in complete frustration, and the one that surprised me with how quickly and pleasantly it went down. I read (most) of the books God Save the Queen and Greyfriar in the last month. One of these books is the former, and one is the latter.


The novels are very similar to one another, from kind of broad & contested categories like "quality" -- both novels are action intrigue with straightforward prose styles -- down to similarly gormless young women as their protagonists. Both have vampires and the English empire, court politics and mysterious mentors, uprisings and labor, fight scenes and monsters. Both are nominally steampunk, which I've come to realize can mean "historical paranomal with vague Victorian elements". (Arguably, this is almost always what it means, but I've been subject to so many sermonettes from my guy about the alt-history of technology and mass production as colonization yadda yadda that my understanding of the genre was, let's just say obscured.) 


God Save the Queen begins with a tense visit to the London Underground, where the goblins live. Xandra (and this name is an indicator of things to come) needs to talk to the goblins about her missing sister. There's some infodumping, but I'm not really minding because the set-up is novel enough: the aristocracy of England have become vampires, and the English Empire has continued to the present day, without all the bother of world wars, etc. (Actually, the vampire aristocracy is far from novel, but the present day bit, with current tech like cars and CD players -- though they are given cute new names -- is not something I've seen before.) 


Xandra is some kind of police enforcer thing and "half-plagued", though I could not tell you exactly what that means. Apparently, vampirism is somehow both a virus AND a genetic disorder, and somehow goblins come about because of...vampires breeding? That can't work. Look, I don't know. Honestly, the infodumping got so bad I just fucking skipped it, because it made zero sense and was waaaay to convoluted. Oh, also, there are werewolves, although maybe they're called lycans, and they are somehow in the whole plague/gene mess with the vampires and the goblins. I suspect there's a Venn diagram somehow. Anyhoo.


Greyfriar instead starts on an Imperial airship, the teenage heirs to the Alexandrian throne out for a jaunt to the border towns. This alt-history also involves vampires, though these vampires came out of the shadows 150 years ago and slaughtered everyone in the colder parts of the world. Apparently, vampires can't stand the heat, so a band roughly at, say, the French Riviera or so cuts off their holdings from the humans. The seat of the English Empire decamped for its holdings (Egypt, India, etc), and everything seems culturally pluralistic in that vague way that doesn't actually include cultures other than white European. The airship is set upon by vampires; Princess Adele falls in with Robin Hood-ish figure Greyfriar; there's a race across the continent to a vampire-run London, etc. 


Princess Adele is a little annoying, in that it's clear she has some kind of magical power that her sketchy band of councilors have been nurturing, and also because she's a godamn princess. Greyfriar, well, I do not think it's any kind of spoiler to say that it's more than obvious what his secret is -- lessee, he's a vampire hunter with vampire-like powers and he never shows his face, hmmm -- though that secret is dispensed with quickly, thank the starry heavens. The vampires annoyed me a little too, in that we're told they don't like human stuff like clothes or social hierarchies and the like, but then they're always wearing clothes and jostling for power in a recognizable political system based on primogeniture. I mean, what gives? It reads as squeamishness, not even wanting to mention things like shhhh naked bodies, when we're told explicitly (heh) that this would be the norm. 


Xandra from God Save the Queen is similarly annoying. Xandra is a half-vampire in a world where the humans rose up and tried to kill their vampire overlords in the memorable past. Xandra hates the fuck out of humans because of this, which felt awkward for this human to read. (She's half-vamp because her dad got down with a whole houseful of human women at some point, and this is excused as a "mid-life crisis." She lives with most of her half-siblings. This seems awkward but they don't seem to mind.) She's always hanging out with her mentor, some inscrutable vampire dude, and bitching about how humans are so jelly that she's got red hair and is just the absolute very best at everything she ever does. None of this endears her to me. 


Roughly a thousand red flags are waved beneath Xandra's nose about the true nature of the aristocracy -- let's just parse the metaphorics of a literally blood-drinking upperclass for a moment -- though at half-point, when I abandoned book, Xandra was still fully vampires rule, humans drool. Now, it's entirely possible that it will turn out that the aristocracy is kewl, and that Xandra's mother and sister, who warn her in no uncertain terms about her mentor, will turn out to be wrong. I haven't finished the book. But I suspect that what is really happening is that the aristocracy is eeevil, her mentor will betray her, she's going to end up the Chosen One, etc etc etc. The football in this book is not so much hidden as lodged so far up this book's ass it's causing acid reflux. DO NOT try to hide the football for this long; you only insult and annoy your readers:  Sometimes I just can't stand to see the inevitable play out, especially a revelation as tired as "maybe the blood-drinking upper classes don't have my best interests at heart." You think? 


Which is a funny thing to say, because certainly Greyfriar isn't, you know, messing with my expectations at all, and I probably could have accurately predicted the outcome at least at the halfway point, if not sooner. In some ways, predictability is why I'm reading the midlist, because I am a tired and sad panda and cannot handle anything with more challenge to it. So why did I chuck one book and not the other? Both have their irritations with world-building, characters, and plots. Both also have their charms. I could easily imagine a reader who felt completely differently from me -- which has happened a couple times, when I read reviews by people who had the exact opposite reactions from mine -- who loved God Save the Queen and couldn't finish Greyfriar


While both feel a lot like young adult literature -- from the age of protagonist to the overall coyness i/r/t sex and violence -- God Save the Queen has just a little bit more juice. The world has an on-the-street grit to it that Greyfriar lacks, with street fights and some tension to the action. Greyfriar has a higher body count, but it's all videogame violence, killing off faceless baddies with little consequence. God Save the Queen is definitely on the punkier end of steampunk, which is a quality I often prefer. But good god damn, I could not even deal with how fucking thick Xandra was. At least Princess Adele was just naive, not actively pig-headed, though I'll admit I worried about her sense when she sorted about the big "secret" and lost her damn mind -- ugh, seriously, stop being so foolish. Which she then did! Yay! 


But, for me, the the world and its ornament was better in Greyfriar, from the geomancy to the horribly gauche American characters. They were straight up funny. Maybe it was point of view? God Save the Queen is first person, and Xandra's voice had a nasty self-satisfied whine to it. I've certainly had books go the other way, where the jerk first person narrator completely makes the book -- like Lolita or Bray House -- but in books where we're clearly supposed to identify with the narrator, no. Maybe it's the football-hiding, which certainly put me off in Queen, but it's possible I'm an old desiccated crank, and others will find Xandra's loyalties understandable or even commendable. (No.) 


Maybe it's mood, maybe it's a bad potato, maybe it's who even knows. But I couldn't even finish God Save the Queen, and I enjoyed Greyfriar beyond its merits. Ultimately, and in the parlance of our times, ¯_(ツ)_/¯

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review 2014-09-20 16:25
Summer of Steampunk: Her Sky Cowboy
Her Sky Cowboy - Beth Ciotta

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one.


Trigger warning: rape. 


After my cock-up last go round with a book that was a second in a series, here I actually did my homework. Instead of hauling off and reading His Clockwork Canary -- which the library was fronting on me bigtime, and has a much more enticing name (to me, anyway) -- I actually read book one in the Glorious Victorious Darcys series by Beth Ciotta, Her Sky Cowboy. Feelings are decidedly mixed. 


So, most of my outings in the Summer of Steampunk have been pretty romance-y, with the world building taking a back seat to the romantic needs of the protagonists. All of the Steam and Seduction books by Delphine Dryden, for example, are absolute shit at alt-history, so much so I pretty much spite-read the second, Scarlet Devices, all the way to end, shouting about how implausible everything was. I mean, do you have any fucking idea how big the center of the North American continent is??? I ask, because a part of the plot hinges on someone controlling all of it like it's a couple hundred acres. You could stop up some of the passes on the Rockies, but that leaves just huge swaths of...seriously, I have to stop thinking about this.


But! Ms Dryden writes really lovely relationships, and her comings-together have a sweetness to them, a freshness. So, even though I wanted to punch Scarlet Devices for the horror of its geography, I moved on to book three, Gilded Lily, and was rewarded with giant junkie krakens. So while her world often leaves something to be desired (or strays into downright annoying), I like her characters and writing style enough to give this a pass. Steampunk is a pretty pulpy genre, and I'm going to award points for mutant cephalopods over plausibility any day. (Also, at some point she made an Andrew Marvell joke, which, who even does that? Anyone willing to make a funny about a semi-obscure 17th Century poet rules the school.)


Compare/contrast with my feelings about Her Sky Cowboy, which in many ways has the most inventive (and often downright funny) set-up for a steampulp novel I've read, married to a both perfunctory and offensive romance plot (which is a neat trick, if you can pull it off.) It's almost infuriating, watching this neat idea get buried under pedestrian prose, a prêt-à-porter plot, and romance novel bullshit. Amelia Darcy is one of at least three young women I've encountered in my summer reading who have recently lost a mad scientist father. Darcy discovers her father has bankrupted the family, and is then coincidentally invited to join a sort of treasure hunt, which would solve that problem. Due to a series of breathtakingly stupid decisions, she ends up on a pirate airship on the hunt for Da Vinci's helicopter. Et cetera.


But the world this paint-by-numbers plot occurs in is pretty great. Here, the alt-history is that, sometime in the late 1960s, after some kind of world-ending annihilation, a group of people time-traveled back to the Victorian era to divert this coming apocalypse. Pretty much they're all idealistic hippies who adhere to a sort of temporal prime directive, but, people being who they are, future tech does get out. (How this results in airships not airplanes, just whatever.) (Also, I initially thought this was the Cuban Missile Crisis gone wrong, but that can't be it given the date, so I don't even know what the event was.) (Not that it really matters.) Anyway, a bunch of hippies infecting Victorian culture with songs that haven't been written and all kinds of other groovy things can make for some far out anachronism, and a lot of the background color tickled me. Altogether a fun and funny playset for the action. 


This was my problem: I think literally every man -- including the romantic lead, but not including her brothers -- thinks openly and often about raping Amelia. All the fucking time. The lead thinks about raping her while he helps stitch up her fairly serious flesh wound when there's blood all over the place, because, you know, romance. Also, if any dude sees any amount of female flesh he immediately starts thinking about forcing sex on her bleeding body. The antagonist has raping Amelia on his to-do list, of course, but then we're also treated to descriptions of him enacting rape fantasies on automotons. For fuck's sake, I do not need to see that in a silly romantic adventure novel. She's abducted and nearly raped by some dude, and the hero (I use this word with bitter irony) castigates her for not better deflecting the threat of rape. The hero also spends a lot of time making sure she's safe from his own crew, because obvs they want to rape her too even though of course they're really great guys who get to know her and then selflessly help her on her incredibly stupid quest and never think about raping her again, because, lord knows, no one ever got raped by someone they know. 


Fuck all this business. I have close to zero patience with the whole #notallmen thing -- in a conversation about rape culture, it makes no sense to focus on not-the-problem -- but I'm going to say it: not all men think about raping women all the livelong day. They sure as fuck shouldn't be treated as romantic leads or chummy friends when they do think about raping women all day. As a feminist, I think this view of humanity is appalling, shortchanging men and slyly putting the onus on women to avoid rape. Men are not fucking animals, and any explanation for rape that says it's about how men can't control themselves when they see female flesh is insulting and demeaning to everyone. I go through the godamn roof when I see this diseased ideation in fluff pulp. It normalizes and romanticizes thinking that should be treated like the pathology it is. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick. 


 So, um, there you have my freakout. I'm not even sure I can pull out of this death spiral to finish up properly, but I should probably try. I hear people say, with great regularity, that reviews should be objective, and yes, I do value opinions that that are more carefully explained. As the closure on your five paragraph essay, I could say something about how some aspects of the book were pleasing, and others were not, so on the balance it's a wash. But it's not. In my subjective opinion, this book sucks, even on a pretty forgiving scale. The things that pissed me off did not balance the things I thought were neat. 


Which made me think a little about the more mainstream and better written fantasy out there that normalizes rape and presents similar views of how men and women tick. How much better does the writing have to be for me to accept this aspect of a novel? How much more "serious" or "gritty" or "real"? Because I've done it: valued the quality of the writing over the odiousness of the worldview. I'm not even going to apologize for that, exactly, because it's obviously a big fucking shitshow with no easy answers. We've all got the levers on which we pivot, and I just want to understand mine. 






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review 2014-09-10 03:40
Summer of Steampunk: Prince of Hearts
Prince of Hearts - Margaret Foxe

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one.


Heretofore, I've been reviewing books from my Summer of Steampunk that aren't particularly notable. Some of this is that it's easier to be a crank; some of this is the fact that I had to get something down before I forgot clean about them. Rather than give the impression that I hate everything and why am I even reading steampulp, I wanted to get in a review of a book I enjoyed. Hey Mikey! etc. 


The broad strokes are thus: Aline is the personal assistant to a growly Russian dude, Sasha Romanov (and I would like to just take a moment to be a bitch about this name; really?) She quits in a fit of pique in order to marry the boring cipher she's engaged to, which puts the question to the true nature of her feelings towards her employer, &c &c. When Aline is targeted by a Jack the Ripperish murderer, a whole mess of crazy steampunkery ensues, including such things as Leonardo da Vinci, secret societies, immortals, vampires, mecha-soldiers, and the Crimean War. I generally prefer a kitchen sink approach to pulp, and this book delivers that in spades. I'll start with things that bugged, and move onto things I liked. 


Minuses: Prince of Hearts isn't particularly well plotted: things take too long to get started, and then happen too furiously once they do. My real problem (which became very apparent when I went to read the second in this series and had zero idea what was going on) is that the architecture of the techno-steampunkery slash paranormal taxonomy makes little sense and/or isn't explained well. I'm going to admit I don't pay attention very well to explanations or infodumps, so this could be me. Even still, I think it lacked a certain metaphorical punch necessary to be memorable.


Pluses: War in the Crimea, wot wot! Maybe I'm easy, but I straight up love it when people go for strange, little-remembered national conflicts in their alt-histories. I googled a little, just so I had the particulars fresh about the Crimea, and that conflict was such a pyrrhic shitshow, remembered mostly because of Florence Nightingale or the Charge of the Light Brigade. (The latter is primarily remembered because a whole mess of folk got killed attacking the wrong location. Good Lord. It's like the Battle of Thermopylae, but more of a bummer because it's stupid.) 


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
The plot doesn't get into this overmuch, but one of the secret histories of the book has to do with the Crimean War, and really anyone taking on all the complicated and ultimately pointless machinations of that conflict wins me a star. It's like the war before the Great War (which is just as complicated and ultimately pointless) but with an even bigger cultural disconnect. Paper topic: discuss why it is that we can talk about the Napoleonic Wars with more authority and regularity when mushy regional conflicts like the Crimean War have much more to do with current geopolitics, cf. the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. 
Anyway, plus two is that Aline is a compulsive gambler, and her blithe trottings into gambling dens, unaware that anyone has been smoothing her way, were the kind of meta-comedy I appreciate. I liked that she's an addict, full on, no metaphors of blood or supernatural whatnot. And I liked that she thinks she's slick, running off to feed her beast, but that pretty much everyone knows what she's up to. It's almost -- though I don't want to stretch it too far -- a metaphor about how protagonists are treated with a certain narrative magic, protected from their worst instincts by the hand of narrative expedience. She can't get knifed on the street, even though she would probably get knifed on the street, because she has the supernatural hand of her employer/writer making sure she doesn't. Good. 
I think I remember h8ing the ending on this one. (I'm sorry; it's been a while.) My memory is of a third act turn where Aline runs away and then there's a dopey reunion played to the cheap seats, but it's obviously not enough to spoil my thoughts on the book. Sometimes my Summer of Steampunk gave me just enough to keep me googling into the night, which is where I want to be. Boo yah. 
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review 2014-09-04 21:39
Summer of Steampunk: Clockwork Mafia
Clockwork Mafia - Seleste deLaney

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one.


Most of the titles I've read for my Summer of Steampunk come from the recommend feature at my public library, because I can't be arsed to do actual research or pay for anything. Now I love my library, but it's true that their database is terrible and the search function worse. Which is how come I came to read the second in a series without knowing that was the case. I think it's generally true that you have to read the first in any series, even if you then decide to skip around. So much important exposition -- especially when one is dealing with an alternate history -- takes place in the first, and then is assumed knowledge. While some of this can come down to the skill of the writer, I think we need to be realistic about our expectations when it comes to pulp. Which is my longwinded way of saying, this book was dumb and confusing in places, but some of that could be my fault for reading like a slob. 


The plot of Clockwork Mafia is fairly perfunctory. Like at least two other titles I read, the main character is a plucky middle class lady whose mad scientist father has just died. She, of  course, is also into the mad scientry, and evil Dickensian villains are now after either her or her dad's formula/device/whatnot. I did not understand the alternate history at all. Apparently, the East Coast is still some kind of British colony, complete with the peerage? But then there's a country in the Midwest which is run by some kind of bandit queen? Just, whatever. Main character girl somehow both works as a mechanic on a long haul airship and is a lady of society, and extremely silly false dichotomies pop up all over the place. Altogether, this book is below average.


But the cock-up involving book order ended up amusing me. It eventually becomes clear that no one from the first book likes this character: they think she's a two-faced social climber. Even though I didn't see any evidence of said duplicitous cattiness, the girl spends just an inordinate amount of time apologizing to the leads from the previous book. Before I figured out why this was the case -- book two! duh -- I thought the choice to make one of these cookie-cutter virgin ingenues apologize to everyone for just existing completely charming. Sorry I'm such a dishrag! Pardon my dreariness! That the leads from the other book appear to be violent sociopaths made me occasionally feel bad about her apologetics -- seriously, girl, those people are wack -- but not often enough to spoil my fun. I will not be reading the first to determine the exact psychosis of the original leads. 


Oh, and I was hugely disappointed that it wasn't a literal Clockwork Mafia, like one where automata are made up like stereotypical mobsters in zoot suits and pomade. I would read the shit out of that. 



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review 2014-09-04 01:43
Summer of Steampunk: Heart of Brass
Heart of Brass - Kate Cross

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one. Mostly so I don't accidentally check out the same books simply because I can't tell them apart. Which will happen if I don't, mark my words. 


Heart of Brass by Kate Cross falls into middling territory. Seven years before, new bride Arden lost her spy husband Luke to spy business in France. As a coping mechanism, she's more or less assumed his position in the MI5ish organization that he worked for. Then her husband returns one day, stripped of his memories and bent on her assassination. Will their love transcend his amnesia? It's a good bet. 




Unimaginative. The political system makes close to zero sense -- there are two spy agencies, The Company, and whomever Arden works for -- and I have no idea at all what they are trying to accomplish. It seems to me there could be a way of steampunking the Napoleonic Wars, but here, alas, that did not happen.


General clunkiness. A large sub-plot has to do with the husband's brother trying to declare Luke dead so he can become the earl, and this ends up being fairly boring. There's also a murder mystery subplot that has nothing to do with the emotional spine of the book, and while some of the tech was nifty, it wrapped up too neatly. 




Remarriage plot. While the situation is patently ridiculous (amnesia!!!), the ways Arden and Luke attempt to come to terms with his memory loss and absence is fairly handled. Yes, it's all lovely that his body remembers her, etc, but they have been apart longer than they were together. She is not a blushing bride anymore, and he has no idea who he is. So many of these pulp steampunk books deal with plucky virgin girls, and that Cross took on a couple with history and grief was notable. 


The ladies. There are more than a few women (other than the heroine) in positions of power, and other than one notable exception -- which is pretty complicated, actually -- they are not treated as a threat to the heroine or viperous bitches. Again, a lot of steampulp almost reflexively accepts the diseased gender norms of the Victorians, layered over with modern slut-shaming, and that Heart of Brass was just like, yo, a woman is the Victorian CSI, no probs, was pretty great. 


Verdict: A fine outing for a Summer of Steampunk, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not chasing the long tail. 

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