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Steamed: A Steampunk Romance

by Katie MacAlister


Didn’t like it. Not because it was a romance, I generally like romances, especially with a fantasy twist; and I like the concept of steampunk quite a lot.

Though I have to say: does anybody know where the good steampunk is? The stuff has just exploded on the fantasy/sci-fi scene in the last ten years or so, and I have yet to find a steampunk book I really liked. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan book was the best I’ve hit so far – though only because Jim Butcher’s book The Aeronaut’s Windlass is pure fantasy despite it having airships, because anything Jim Butcher writes is better than almost anything else. I tried Cherie Priest and didn’t like the one book I read, though that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like something else she wrote. But yeah: not impressed with the steampunk. I feel like authors aren’t using it to their advantage: they’re just like “Goggles and zeppelins are awesome! Yeah!” When they should be saying, “So I’ve got this fantasy idea, right? With epic heroes and a battle between good and evil that ends with good victorious? But wouldn’t it be awesome if I wrote it like H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Conan Doyle?!?” Yeah. It would. Let me know when that happens, okay?

Maybe I’ll write it.

Anyway. The steampunk in this book was really just background, and it should have been, because MacAlister didn’t do much with it either. The steampunk background is not bad, though; the political structure is pre-World War I, with the Emperor of England and Prussia fighting with the Ottoman Empire while also dealing with a rebellion at home; the main heroine is an airship captain, which is cool, and they use steampunk aether guns, which was great; the manners and dress are Victorian, which was sometimes amusing, though that mainly just came out in discussions of bustles and corsets.

MacAlister had the somewhat interesting idea of taking her hero from the modern world and shifting him into a steampunk world; it’s a bit like the movie Kate and Leopold, but in reverse. The problem with that was she didn’t do it terribly well: the hero is a scientist who is working on a quantum something-or-other – let’s call it a flux capacitor – and his sister, joking around with her brother in his lab (because sometimes twenty-somethings act like they’re five [Though to be fair, the sister acts that way throughout the book, so it’s not an inconsistency; she’s just annoying]), drops it onto a live electricity source, and WHAM! The two of them are shifted into an alternate time stream – and 3,000 miles east of where they left, for no particular reason. I mean, okay, sure, it’s a romance; but I honestly don’t think there’s any reason to slack off on the non-romance aspects. The reason Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is so amazing is not just the romance; it’s because that woman is a hell of a historical novelist, almost too obsessive with her research and realistic details.

But the poor science-fiction and okay steampunk are not the issue: because this is a romance. No, the problem with this book is that the romance sucks. This guy, this Jack Fletcher, is freaking annoying. For a scientist in love with an airship captain, he is pretty much just a bro. He somehow has the idea that sexual harasssment equals flirting – and he pulls this, “Hey, I’m a man; of course I’m going to stare at your boobs and then make comments. That’s how men show appreciation!” all the damn time. And though there are some gestures towards Victorian sensibilities, which should have had either the woman herself or some of the men around her challenging this sexist oaf to a duel, really it boils down to a woman flapping her hand and saying “Oh, you!” while giggling after the guy pinches her ass.

The woman, Octavia Pye, is more interesting, because here is a good steampunk opportunity: she is a Victorian gentlewoman, but she can be an airship captain because the steampunk world is more modern and thus potentially more egalitarian; she can also be experienced romantically, and be interested in sex instead of having to swoon at the thought of a man unclothed. And MacAlister does that pretty damn well: Octavia pushes Jack away as a Victorian lady should, and then when they do get together, the sex scenes are actually quite good, both sexy and hilarious. But she puts up with too much of the bro-bullshit. There’s a point when they’re going to go into danger, and even though Octavia is a military officer, an airship captain, and Jack is a Quaker, this Bro actually says, “I grew up to believe a man must stand between a woman and danger.” And somehow the Quaker pacifism turns into, “Well, as long as I don’t kill the man, I can definitely beat the snot out of him with my mighty manly bro-fists.”

Anyway. They fall in love too quickly, as romances tend to do; the story sort of wakes up after the romantic scenes and is like, “Oh wait – wasn’t there supposed to be a plot line somewhere around here?” and then they live happily ever after, maybe setting up for a sequel which I will not be reading.

Suggestions for good steampunk are welcome.

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