And now for something completely different. Steampunk anyone? While it’s not a new genre, it has a strong and dedicated following, and since its initial surge in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, it has become a literary phenomenon and spread to all ages. We even have steampunk board book recommendations! So what is it? The setting for steampunk literature is typically in the 19th century, usually in Victorian England. But not the Victorian England we recognize historically. Steampunk’s hallmark is science fiction/fantasy with fictional technological inventions, like computers, appearing way ahead of their time. While it has some elements of cyberpunk, it is much less dystopian and has a more positive tone, though it is edgy in a fun way. Gotta say, we love the women’s fashions, too. For read-alouds, your family might enjoy a classic in its own right, and a delightful new picture book on the joys of octopuses (yes, that’s the correct plural!) as pets.
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
I used to think of this amazing series (His Dark Materials) as a more modern Narnia-type fantasy. But now I see it as a Steampunk fore-runner, set in a mythical British empire /parallel universe with its own set of scientific rules and with fantastical machines. The Golden Compass of the title of the first book in the series is itself a machine that Lyra is miraculously skilled at reading. Exploring themes of religion, friendship, politics, family, the notion of magic and of other worlds, it touches on every major theme that resonates with families for great readalouds. The orphan (or is she?) Lyra Belaqua, and her animal familiar (daemon, they call them) Pantalaimon are our guides into this world. The second book continues in our own world with another abandoned youngster, Will. Their worlds and many others will collide before the adventure is finished. These phenomenal books hold up to (in fact, they practically demand) several readings. And they make a perfect introduction to the world(s) of steampunk literature.
Walking Your Octopus: A Guidebook to the Domesticated Cephalopod by Brian Kessinger
Victoria Psismall teaches us about the current craze that is sweeping London: octopuses as the perfect pet. She and her own pet Otto are the models for how to train and enjoy your own cephalopod, with hilariously illustrated do’s and don’t’s. Victoria and Otto inhabit a very different Victorian England–steampunk, of course. The whimsy is contagious in this 30-page beautiful spread of the duo as they play croquet, cook, bathe, bike, and more. Really, the whole family will enjoy this delightful volume, and be ready to dip further into the world of steampunk.
Infants, Toddlers and Preschool:
Steampunk Alphabet by Nathanael Iwata
With no less than six new steampunk alphabet books, it’s tough to choose, but we love the stunning art, inventiveness, and tough construction of this nifty little board book. The author and illustrator, Nat Iwata, has been doing steampunk artwork for the videogame industry for years. He brings a wonderful whimsy and accessibility to the genre. Every page is an illustration of a familiar object in our world–say, and apple–then reimagined as steampunk. Then he places these objects within his imagined world. Really, a great read for the family, as toddlers will love the alphabet and illustrations, and older kids and adults can revel in the imagined steampunk universe.
Her Majesty’s Explorer: A Steampunk Bedtime Story by Emilie P. Bush, illustrated by William Kevin Petty
Look no further for the perfect bedtime story to introduce your little one to the wonder of steampunk. St. John Murphy Alexander is Her Majesty’s Explorer, roaming around world, exploring for the Queen. He loves it, but it certainly is a dirty job, as he encounters incredible landscapes, surprising creatures, and a range of weather patterns. He is ready for relaxation and sweet dreams at the end of the day. Love the mini-book on Steamduck at the end. A charming and whimsical story, all Steampunk, with gentle rhymes and plays with words, and delightful illustrations. And if you and your family enjoy this one–and we think you will–you’ll also want to read the sequel Steamduck Learns to Fly: A Steampunk Picture Book.
A Steampunk Tale of the Curious Canine, His Best Friend, and the Lady Who Flew by Charlotte Whatley
Just a warning: this looks like just set of very cool paper dolls with heavy cardboard covers and lots of amazing steampunk clothes for them all to wear. While it is that for sure, there is so much more. The “more” being a storybook in the middle of the paperdoll collection that is an awesome tale that you can also make your paper dolls act out(!)
Part-time poet “Fin” (Finley Landbroke) is the jaunty and compelling young man in this romantic tale. Equally important (and appealing) is Avey Tiptree (aerialist and seamstress). And of course, the “curious canine” aka Professor Watts. This short story is clever, funny, and romantic–and you can treat the 3 friends to all sorts of adventures in their steampunk fashions.
Tweens and Teens
Fever Crumb by Phillip Reeve
Though you wouldn’t know it from the title, Fever Crumb is a person, a young woman to be exact. Fever is the adopted daughter of Dr. Crumb, and the only female member of the Order of Engineers. Though set in the future, this London is still in the middle ages, though the antiques, junk, and remnants of the past show a more advanced history (circuit boards and microchips litter the landscape. A complex and almost indescribable fantasy novel. For example, Fever is raised in the gigantic head of an unfinished stature. Though this stunning novel stands alone, it also is a prequel to Reeve’s Hungry Cities/Mortal Engines series. It’s an intriguing world, and fast becoming a steampunk classic.
Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Colbert Porpentine (Col) is born to the elite class in this steampunk version of Great Britain. He’s in line to follow his grandfather as future Supreme Commander of Worldshaker. This huge roving community is over 2 miles long and one mile wide, and definitely class-oriented. Col lives a refined life in the Upper Decks, but a Filthy stowaway (Riff) from below decks introduces him to other Revolutionaries who are working for social justice. Though not very subtle in its message, it’s still great science fiction with strong characters and an intriguing plot.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Here’s a very different take on World War I: while the Germans and Austrians put their faith in machines (the “Clankers”), the British Darwinists develop new species for the war effort. Prince Aleksander flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Air”man” Deryn Sharp hopes no one discovers she is a girl as she serves on the British Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. It’s a world of crazy machines and un-natural animals, all of it bizarre–and fascinating. The main characters are rich and complex, too. Suspense, action–and a lot of fun.
The Friday Society by Adrienne Cress
Love this book! Maybe our favorite of the book flight. The setting? Steampunk Edwardian London as a kind of exotic Old West. Three charming, clever, and brave heroines: Cora, a young and brilliant lab assistant; Michiko, truly amazing martial arts/samurai-in-training; and Nellie, a clever, pretty magician’s assistant who loves sparkles, costumes, and social engineering. This trio forms the Friday Society, and band together to solve a murder mystery and save their friends and loved ones. These young women are strong and sassy–and love good fashion at the same time! It has the feel of “first of a series,” but we don’t see any evidence of a follow-up of this terrific novel. We can always hold out hope. . .
Adults of All Ages:
Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate) by Gail Carriger
Victorian romance, with a twist. Kind of a lot of twists. First of all, in this steampunk world, there are vampires and werewolves, among other creatures. Our protagonist is a rarity; she is soulless. Upper class Alexia Tarabotti is also a no-nonsense, clever “spinster” of 25. Sparks fly when she meets Lord Conall Maccon, a Scottish Alpha werewolf. A very witty parody of sorts, and the start of the Soulless series.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
We close with a classic: the Philip K. Dick Award-winner of adventure, comedy, time-travel, and ancient gods and wizards, all set in 17th-century England. The mythology is mostly Egyptian, but with werewolves and other supernatural creatures thrown in. It’s also a great introduction to Tim Powers’ other works. Enjoy!