Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

Once a little-known subculture, Steampunk is now studded all over the fantasy genre like so many burnished bolts, its gears a-whirring with the excitement of history-that-never-was, valves opening with the hiss of adventure, pouring forth veritable clouds of Victoriana – and there’s the rub. Steampunk often ends up being highly West-centric, somehow equating ‘the nineteenth century’ with ‘Victorian London’. But there’s a whole wide world out there – and Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories does a damn fine job of exploring it. Not only is this anthology delightful in that its characters – its adventurers and inventors, its rulers and airship pirates, its heroes – are queer women doing things on their own terms, but also in that they are multicultural, from all over the world, or from alternate worlds that are more than just magical versions of Europe.

From sweet pistol-totin’ romance down in old New Orleans in NK Jemisin’s ‘The Effluent Engine’ through to Amal El-Mohtar’s alternate Damascus and breathtaking dreamscapes in ‘To Follow the Waves’, editor JoSelle Vanderhooft has chosen stories diverse in character, setting, genre and mood. If the first couple of stories follow an enjoyable but predictable romantic trajectory – a pair of very different women meeting, sparks flying – the book as a whole doesn’t fall into that pattern. There are brilliant new spins on old tropes, and some stories that twist expectations around quite sharply – Matt Kressel’s ‘The Hand That Feeds’, which seems to be building towards a romantic criminal escapade through a magical New York, changes tone in a sudden and shocking way that’s very well done. The same story is a particularly bright example of the diversity that is such a strength of the book, with an Indian and a Jewish woman taking centre stage. Jessica and Divya are both flawed and likeable, their defiance and decisions in the face of hardship thoroughly believable.

Though most of the stories in the anthology are enjoyable, the best are those that are utterly engaging works of fiction in their own right and examinations of Steampunk and fantasy in general at the same time. Amal El-Mohtar’s tale of an artisan who cuts dreams into precious stone is a beautiful piece of worldbuilding, an aching romance, and also a deeply probing examination of romance and worldbuilding. Shweta Narayan’s ‘The Padishah Begum’s Reflections’ is a gorgeous alternate Mughal history that is both playful and heady in its layering of narrative, a story about power and storytelling. And Mikki Kendall’s disturbing ‘Coppers for a Trickster’ is full of weird magic and looks at what happens when its characters apply their own narratives to an unknown land.

This is a surprising and brave book, uplifting and harrowing by turns, that delivers what it says on the tin and a whole lot more. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the way dominant narratives can be picked up, tinkered with, de- and re-constructed or just plain opposed.