Brant Guillory, 8 September 2022
“Steampunk” is one of those literary terms that’s being thrown out all over the alternative fiction world – hard to call it just ‘sci-fi’ when there are hefty fantasy and historical elements to it – and is rapidly becoming a widely-recognizable genre that’s crossing RPG, boardgaming, videogaming, comics, and long-form fiction lines. Updating the worlds imagined by Verne and Wells, among others, Steampunk narratives have transcended RPGs like Space:1889 and Castle Falkenstein to bubble up into best-selling books, and TV shows like Warehouse 13.
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
As with any fiction genre exploding in popularity (pirates, zombies, vampires, the misadventures of overeducated and underathleticized wargamers) there is a variety of excellent material to entertain audiences, and quite a load of crap hoping to cash in on a fad and then chase off after the ‘next big thing’. Sorting through bookstores’ newly-minted Steampunk sections can be a bit like trying to find something worthwhile in the alternative section of a record store (remember them?) back in 1993: when the selection ranges from Mudhoney to Hootie & The Blowfish to Rage Against the Machine to Throwing Muses to Inspiral Carpets, the label is pretty useless. And when you find a worthy entry into the genre, there’s a point at which you jump on the nearest (non-rolling) chair and sing its praises and demand that passers-by pay some damn attention to this bright ray of literary light you’ve managed to stumble across.
Enter The Doomsday Vault – the first novel of the burgeoning Clockwork Empire series from Steven Harper.
Set in a Victorian London that’s populated by the Steampunk requirements of automatons, airships, and mysterious clockwork gadgets, The Doomsday Vault tracks the adventures of the only daughter of a minor titled noble who is fallen on hard financial times, and a young American aeronaut stranded in London after escaping the ‘privateers’ who hijacked his airship under dubiously-legal cover.
I know what you’re thinking: Clockwork gadgets – check! Airships – check! Class warfare – check! Throw in both pirates and zombies, and – yawn! – we’re starting to stray into the aforementioned crap looking to score a quick buck and run for the hills, right? Nope. Not in the slightest.
Harper’s protagonist is certainly cut from familiar cloth. She’s a strong-willed woman balancing between societal demands of propriety and her own personal desires to pursue happiness in its non-ladylike forms. In this case, Alice Michaels is torn between exploring her own interest in clockwork automatons, and marrying a financially successful bachelor who is willing to overlook her ‘advanced age’ (22!?) and familial difficulties in exchange for his offspring holding her father’s title. And yet, although we expect Alice to seethe at the proprieties of society, and to mirror her frustration in not breaking free of these arbitrary bonds, Harper writes her with a depth that shows her struggle is no mere literary trope. She truly is conflicted between a very real challenge of restoring her family’s name and good fortunes, and the breathless life of an undercover adventurer. Her forays into action are punctuated by inventiveness under fire and Harper’s excellent pacing in which the paragraphs of action build in the reader the same tension felt his characters.
Her fellow lead is an American cabin boy about to reach the age of majority at which he would become a full airman. We are given a clear look at life aboard an airship through the eyes of a young man who can imagine himself nowhere else, even after they are hijacked by pirates and he’s forced play for his supper as a fiddler of remarkable talent, until he escapes into London and scrapes his way along as a busker before meeting Alice and eventually joining the mysterious Third Ward.
Much more than this basic plot introduction would likely rob the reader of the joy of discovering Harper’s sweeping narrative, and thus there’s a limit to how much to divulge in a review intended to coax the reader into picking up the book.
What must be mentioned, however, is Harper’s intricate world and the details that fit together like, well, like the gears of a mastercrafted timepiece. Why do clockwork automata operate so flawlessly in an alternate 1880, but never did in our own world? How did Babbage’s first computer become the tool of global dominance, instead of the mechanical curiosity we know? How is hydrogen-powered airship travel possible years before the Hindenburg? Why the hell are there zombies all over London?
Harper’s Clockwork Plague giveth – the mad genius of Babbage and others created the fantastic gadgetech that dominates the setting under the influence of the disease – and it taketh away, in that Alice Michael’s family has been cursed with exposure to it, leading to the deaths of her mother and brother and her family’s current status as social outcasts. The intricacies of the disease, the benefits, the curses, the effects, and the musically-inspired counteractions are all revealed in due time as the narrative progresses and the readers discover them almost in parallel with the characters.
From the opening of the book when Alice’s cab is attacked by zombies en route to a swanky society ball, the readers are treated to a rollicking ride through an honest-to-God unapologetically pure swath of Steampunk goodness, drizzled with a yellow mist and topped off with a floating cherry. It is a delicious and savory treat that never lingers too long in travelogue merely for the sake of filling pages, nor does it rush from staged action sequence to staged action sequence (hello, Fast & Furious franchise) without any internal coherence. Harper walks the tightrope perfectly, and his readers are the ever-fortunate beneficiaries. Go. Read. Now.
Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons as we delve into our personal archives and bring back some previous articles about games you might still want to check out.
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