Sunday, 26 December 2010

Grandville

Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape
Grandville is set in a steampunk world, featuring steam powered motor vehicles, air transport, robots (known as "automatons"), telephones (known as "voicepipes") and televisions. In this world, Britain lost the Napoleonic War and was invaded by France. The British Royal Family were guillotined. Britain was later given independence from the French Empire following "a prolonged campaign of civil disobedience and anarchist bombings." Following independence, Britain became "The Socialist Republic of Britain". 23 years later, Britain is linked to the French Empire by the Channel railway bridge, and Paris is the biggest city in the world, known by the nickname of "Grandville". In Britain the English language is only spoken in rural communities, with the main language spoken in the country being French. The vast population in Grandville are anthropomorphic animals. Humans do exist, however. Having evolved in Angoulême, they are referred to by the French as "doughfaces", have never gained citizens' rights, and are considered menial workers. They are not allowed passports and so have never made it to Britain. The main characters in the series are Detective Inspector Archibald "Archie" LeBrock, a large, heavily-built badger; and his assistant Detective Roderick Ratzi, a monocle-wearing rat.

Brian Talbot has long been a favourite here. I'll get around to reviewing some of his related earlier work (the 2 Luther Arkwright books) at a later date. In the meantime here is the first of his series of anthropomorphic steampunk books - the very wonderful Grandville.

This first Grandville book concerns LeBrock and Ratzi's attempt to investigate the murder of a British diplomat. The investigation leads them to Grandville where they find themselves involved in a plot bigger than they could ever have imagined.

Anyone who has followed Talbot though the years will know that he is a consummate storyteller in both word and image. His plots are tight and plausible, his characters utterly human (or in this case, animal) and his illustrations perfectly paced and beautifully executed with a warmth to the art that radiates from the pages. The world of Grandville is sumptuously illustrated and beautifully reflects the opulence of the city with the world at it's feet. The technology is interwoven into both the storyworld and the narrative with seamless ease and in LeBrock and Ratzi we have two characters who are compulsive viewing. Ratzi in particular has become a firm favourite.

Even with all this going for it Grandville is a hard sell. Growing up reading comics funny animal books were always a particular dislike of mine and that view hasn't changed. Even knowing I would love what was inside it took me a small while to invest the necessary readies and take the plunge into it's covers. I'm certain I'm not the only one who shares this reticence for anthropomorphism. It is however a reticence that is worth putting aside (at least in the case of Grandville) as one soon forgets about the furry / scaly / hairyness of the participants and is swept along in the wake of a cracking whodunit.

Grandville really is something wonderful and worth both your time and your money.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation

George Mann
Snowbooks

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where lycanthropy is a rampant disease that plagues the dirty whorehouses of Whitechapel, where poltergeist infestations create havoc in old country seats, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where nobody ever goes near the Natural History Museum.

Inside this beautiful cover lies a rather nifty little romp featuring gentleman investigator Sir Maurice Newbury along with his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes and his close friend Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge. In this first novel in the series Newbury sets his sights on unravelling the cause of a mysterious airship crash. Around this main strand there are a number of intriguing subplots (the zombies particularly) that are left maddeningly undeveloped as they fade from view over the course of the book. One can only imagine that they'll play a stronger part in later books in the series - although not it seems in book 2.

Mann has a lively and engaging style that is a joy to read. The world he has created is plausible with the new technologies still, for the most part, emerging and finding acceptance amongst the inhabitants. This small concession gives the storyworld a solidity that can be lost in those books that rush to fill the world with new techno marvels. The characters follow fairly established tropes but this is genre writing they're kinda meant to and besides they are fleshed out nicely and soon find their own identities within the story.

The Affinity Bridge is fast, fun and frivolous with a real 'Boy's Own' playfulness. Full of spiffingly brave and honest chaps (and a chapess) that battle doggedly against all manner of dastardly foes for the glory of her Britannic Majesty. It's great fun and like all good pulp writing utterly compulsive.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder
Snowbooks

It is 1861, and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces. Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as 'King's Spy.' His first mission: to investigate the sexual assaults committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke. Accompanied by the diminutive and pain-loving poet, Algernon Swinburne, Burton's investigations lead him back to one of the defining events of the age: the brutal assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840; and the terrifying possibility that the world he inhabits shouldn't exist at all.

Quite frankly this novel turned out to be one of the best books it's been my pleasure to read in a very long time. For his debut novel Hodder takes that heaviest-weight of 19th century adventurers, Richard Burton, partners him with an obscure and largely unsung poet, Algernon Swinburne, and weaves them into a riveting romp through an irrevocably altered Victorian (now Albertian) period. The catalyst for this change and the unorthodox partnership is the mysterious Spring-Heeled Jack whose mythos has been seemlessly interwoven into the narrative.

Burton is a dynamo of energy and it's surprising that he has not been utilised more in fiction of this kind in the past. His real life adventures are audition enough to make his adoption of his role in the narrative utterly plausible. Swinburne's very obscurity for the reader (or at least this reader) allows him the opportunity to become anything Hodder desires of him.
The partnership are assigned a new role of secret investigators for the King in this brave new world of rampant technological and biological advances. Some of which are maybe a little too major for the sort of timelines hinted at but it all goes to serve the tale so I don't really care too much.

As a villain Jack offers much and the seamless way in which Hodder has woven the folktales surrounding this Victorian enigma into the story is an absolute joy. His presence augmented by the maniacal villainy of some other familiar historical faces whose fates, like Burton and Swinburne, have been irrevocably changed by this interloper.

As I said earlier, it's been a while since I enjoyed a book as much as this and that this is a debut novel is nothing short of astonishing. The recommendation on the front from Michael Moorcock (saying pretty much the same as I did in that last sentence) is very apt as it is he that is most brought to mind in Hodder's writing, the characters almost ooze a Moorcockian presence and solidity that enables them to utterly exist within the storyworld no matter how deranged. This is Hodder's baby though and he does have a voice that is very much his own and is both engaging and compulsive. He takes no shortcuts and never leaves the the reader to flounder in unnecessary world-building, wool gathering or naval gazing. The plot is tight, the characters well rounded and engaging and the setting is one I wish to visit again and again.

It's my understanding that the follow up (called, I believe, 'The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man') is on it's way and I for one cannot wait.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

G.W.Dahlquist
Viking


A Spy. A Killer. An Imposter.
Three extraordinary heroes, one very unique novel.
In The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters three most unlikely but nevertheless extraordinary heroes become inadvertently involved in the diabolical machinations of a cabal bent upon enslaving thousands through a devilish ‘process’.
Miss Temple is a feisty young woman with corkscrew curls who wishes only to learn why her fianc√© Roger broke off their engagement…
Cardinal Chang was asked to kill a man, but finding his quarry already dead he is determined to learn who beat him to it and why…
And Dr Svenson is chaperone to a dissolute Prince who has become involved with some most unsavoury individuals…
An adventure like no other, in a mysterious city few have travelled to, featuring a heroine and two heroes you will never ever forget... this is The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters.

Dahlquist's debut novel has become, perhaps justifiably, notorious for the huge amount of money he was advanced on it ($2,000,000) which, to nobodies surprise, it singularly failed to recoup upon publication.
It's a shame as it's not the authors fault, the book itself is very good, but someone at the publishers really should have taken a step back and wondered if a fairly cerebral steampunk novel was ever going to generate that sort of return.

Glass Books is a sumptuously written experience that follows it's 3 very different protagonists, heiress Celeste Temple, assassin Cardinal Chang & doctor Captain-Surgeon Abelard Svenson, as they attempt to make sense of the conspiracy they find themselves embroiled in.

The books themselves are sheets of chemically engineered blue glass that can pull the thoughts from the mind of anyone looking inton it and then replay these stolen experiences (in the first person) to other observers. The creators of this wonderous glass are a cabal of deliciously old fashioned villianous cads and n'er-do-wells who are using them to convert, pervert, infiltrate and control the government of the, German-esque, duchy of Macklenburg. Our heroes, through a variety of unlikely means find themselves at loggerheads with the cabal and in an unlikely union with each other as they attempt to take them down.

As a reader I found the core triumverate to be a mixed bunch. Cardinal Chang I could happily read about all day long. His deliciously cold take on the world was a joy to experience. Svenson is a pompous bore but his unshakeable sense of duty gives his chapters a compulsion and he is a likeable enough pompous bore. Miss Temple though is a spoilt horror and in a way that she would utterly approve of she holds the lion share of the readers attention. She is the least interesting of the characters though and the one which I personally invested the smallest amount of emotional attachment in.

The book is written from the, chapter long, perspectives of each of the three mains in turn. whilst this does give a ridiculously thorough overview of the plot and the action it does result in a lot of repetition which does become slightly tiresome although the pace keeps this from becoming too large an issue.

The book ends on an open note - and indeed there is a sequel which I'll come to another time - so it's not the most satisfying on conclusions but the ride getting there is fun and fairly furious with a nice sense of time and place. It's slightly cerebral nature means it's not going to be for everyone but if you can get through the opening chapter then I think, like me, you'll enjoy the rest of the ride.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Perfect Creature

A nifty little New Zealand movie set in a steampunk universe of dirigibles and post-victorian technology & fashion starring Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott.

The plot revolves around a renegade Brother - one of the vampiric spiritual leaders of the world - whose experiments with genetic engineering (the source of the vampirism) have driven him to murderous psychosis. Leading Brother Silus is charged by the church to track and capture the renegade Edgar before his actions become known. Drawn into this are Saffron Burrow's haggard and downbeat police investigator Lilly Squires and her crew.

Plot wise there's nothing particularly new here but it uses what it has with aplomb. The sets and costumes are beautifully natural and the movie has a nicely oneiric quality that suits the tone of the script and the setting.

Scott spends the entire film with the air of a man slightly uncomfortable with his lot in life, as though unsure if his privileged position has been truly earned. His attitude is originally interpreted as aloofness and relative coldness by the police officers he encounters before they come to see the truth behind the pose. Burrows is the stand-out feature of the movie. Her portrayal of the bereaved and lonely police officer has a delightfully shabby but feistily righteous quality that's an absolute joy to watch.

The technology of the movie reminded me strongly of Terry Gilliam's Brazil with it's wrongly out-moded character. The television are small, circular and black & white, newspapers are large, cumbersome and crudely printed and dirigibles criss cross the sky. The city is a place of market stalls and alleyways. The city streets are filthy and crawling with people and the houses are small, drab and barely functional.

As I said there's nothing in this that'll set the world aflame but as steampunk movies go this is one of the best. It manages to capture the squalor of a neo-victorian realm without sacrificing reality and cohesion to 'Blimey Guv'nor' tweeness. Even with a fairly well established dislike of vampires I thoroughly enjoyed Perfect Creature. I'd have loved to see a sequel somewhere along the line but apparently that's currently been ruled out which is a shame.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Extraordinary Engines

edited by Nick Gevers
Solaris Books

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology brings together original stories by the foremost writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by Nick Gevers, this collection includes Jeffrey Ford James Morrow, Robert Reed, James Lovegrove, Marly Youmans, Kage Baker, Ian R. MacLeod, Margo Lanagan, Keith Brooke, Adam Roberts, Jeff VanderMeer and Jay Lake.

Hmmm. 'Definitive' is a big word to live up to but we all know it was put there for marketing purposes only. You'd have to be a particularly arrogant sort of chap to label your own work as such (whether you're the writer or the editor). Let's be straight here, it isn't 'definitive' by a long way. It has it's moments certainly but on the whole it's a fairly mundane read. What follows is a story by story instant reaction review.

Steampunch - James Lovegrove
Short tale about the rise and fall of robot boxing. It's got a nice sense of time and place and rolls along nicely but is a little too concerned with getting the taste of the place and as such is lacking an edge. It's written as a monologue delivered (complete with asides) direct to the reader which has never been my favourite - no idea why but it's always struck me as a clunky format. A reasonably enjoyable start though.

Static - Marly Youmans
Not really sure what to make of this one. It reminded me strongly of Dianne Wynn Jones (she of Howl's Moving Castle fame) with a touch of Neil Gaiman in there too. It is essentially a wicked stepmother story, even to the point that the girl protagonist's (the princesses) room is called 'the tower'. It's got some nice characterisation (the old fella in the attic is terrific) and some real wit but for me the static riddled world created was just too awkward and unwieldy to settle.

Speed, Speed the Cable - Kage Baker
Baker is, according to the accompanying blurb, the author of the Company novels of a time travelling corporation and this tale fits into that universe. I like her writing style, it's easy and fluid but really her story about the laying of a trans-Atlantic communications cable and an attempt to sabotage it is fairly weak. I'm intrigued by the writer though and may well invest in some of her longer works at some point in the future.

Elementals - Ian R. Macleod
I didn't dig his one at all really. It had a kind of charm to it and Macleod has an easy style but his tale of science and elemental spirits seemed at odds with itself and I felt I was reading a story that was simultaneously striving to go in two directions of once and succeeded only in going nowhere particularly interesting.

Machine Maid - Margo Lanagan
A fun little jaunt into the dubious worlds of Australian mining towns, new marriage, loneliness, murder and robotic sex dolls. The end is a little loose but the rest of the tale had me smiling.

Lady Witherspoon's Solution - James Morrow
One of the more recognisable names in the anthology, Morrow is a writer of some note and this is shown in the style, panache and sheer gonzo humour that runs through his piece. I'm not even going to attempt to describe it but it's the definite high point so far.

Hannah - Keith BrookeA tiny little excursion into Frankenstein science. Too short and too unsophisticated to be truly satisfying but certainly not awful.

PetrolPunk - Adam Roberts
I've had a copy of Roberts' 'Swiftly' novel sat on my bookshelf for a year or so now. It does look like a fun read but I've not had chance to give it a go so this tale is a bit of a dry run for me.
Petrolpunk is a nifty, light-hearted affair with a novel little alternative reality story at it's heart. It's told with an innovative and engaging voice but is too brief for it's scope and suffers a little for it. That said though, i did thoroughly enjoy it.

American Cheetah - Robert Read
A strange little tale of a robotic Abe Lincoln and an equally metallic James / Younger gang. It had promise which it squandered in a muddled ending subsequently improved with an nice little coda.

Fixing Hanover - Jeff Vandermeer
Lots of style but very little substance.

The Lollygang Save The World On Accident - Jay Lake
Jay Lake is another author I have sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be be read (his Mainspring novel) so I've read this one with anticipation. To be perfectly honest it was way too obliquely sci-fi for my tastes. I prefer my sci-fi to be near or twisted future rather than the exoticism of pure sci-fi so not really my cup of tea this one.

The Dream of Reason - Jeffrey Ford
Not really quite sure what the point of this one was. It didn't particularly go anywhere and didn't even particularly fill the brief by being of a steampunk bent. A poor ending to a fairly slapdash book.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Difference Engine

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
Gollancz S.F.

Publishers description:
The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage's perfection of his Analytical Engine. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Engines, is in full and drastic swing. Great Britain, with her calculating-cannons, steam dreadnoughts, machine-guns and information technology, prepares to better the world's lot . . .

I've not read any Sterling before but for a brief period a few years back i read as much Gibson as i could possibly lay my hands on. As an author I find him to be the consummate world-builder with a nicely pulp sense of plot and pacing. You'll have to excuse me therefore if I over-egg Gibson's role in this collaboration as it's not in my power to be able to separate each participants contributions and role - and I think I probably wouldn't want to even if I could.

This collaborative steampunk novel (probably more correctly described as inter-connected novellas) was an absolute corker from start to almost finish. The picture they paint of a London (indeed a world) changed before it's time by the genius of Charles Babbage is simply awe-inspiring. You can taste the smog and feel the starched collars. The societal (and technological) changes seem purposefully organic. Change is everywhere and it's happening before our eyes - at an accelerated pace obviously as that is the premise of the novel - but it's happening within a logical framework. No leaps of fancy are needed here, there are no robot-police or trans-continental dirigibles, the new technology is transforming society at a pace that we living in the here and now would recognise but which is lightning fast when placed in the context of the novel's Victorian era.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the new technology is in it's embrace by the new government itself in it's pursuit of compiling statistical information regarding the population as a whole thereby firmly rooting the novel in the tradition of British bureaucratic dystopian novels a la 1984 & Brave New World an aspect that becomes increasingly apparent at the novels end.

Unlike much literature in this field the technology isn't the focus here it is to a great extent superfluous. It serves to place the plot in a world unlike our own but one that we can easily empathise and interact with. It is the lot of the people of this world that is - as it should be - the novels focus.
At it's heart there is a relatively straight forward spy / revolutionary / adventurer storyline but orbiting this is a bewildering array of subplots and narratives that occasionally impact upon the main in ways that are not always immediately apparent but have a pivotal role in the overall arc.

It isn't perfect. It's episodic nature leaves it feeling a little jarring at times and the placement of the climactic finale to the simplistic action-romp tale leaves the extended ending feeling a little like an afterthought which is a real shame. It is however a novel that I enjoyed immensely. Unusually for a steampunk novel it felt real, it felt familiar and it felt natural.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A Gentleman's Duel

I thought I'd launch this blog with a nifty little animation for your delectation.

Blur Studio's, A Gentleman's Duel, tells the tale of an Englishman and his French rival as they attempt to woo a buxom young lady. Things soon degenerate into one of the things we all love so much about the genre - giant robot battlesuits beating seven shades of oil out of each other!

It's beautifully animated and makes a valiant stab at that sort of 'Carry on...', 'Benny Hill', 'Seaside postcard' saucy British humour. It isn't 100% successful at that but does raise a few chuckles. The joy of it though is in the seamless and riotous brawl.

I'd love to see them take this tale further.

Hello

and welcome to The Steampunk Review.

As a small boy my tastes for anachronistic machinery and outmoded clothing was cemented with repeated viewings of The Time Machine (with Rod Taylor), any Doug McClure movie I could find and, of course, Doctor Who.

My intention here is to pull together as many threads of the steampunk diaspora as possible. I've no interest in pulling them apart and analysing - i leave that sort of thing for others - my intent is purely to document the many flavours of this genre and to add merely my tuppence worth on what I read and see.

I hope you enjoy what you read and find something new and of interest.