Steampunk is a genre I’ve long admired from a distance. A lifelong fan of speculative fiction, it’s a wonder that I didn’t grow up with brass, leather and glass fantasies of alternate technologies and history tilted off its axis – my upbringing was of the more conventionally unconventional garden variety sci-fi (see: Burning Chrome review). In recent years I’ve become ever more fascinated with this sub-genre of fiction, steampunk, but like the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-roommate at the cool kids’ party, I’ve watched from the sidelines and wistfully smiled at Toronto sightings of steampunk cosplayers out and about in unselfconscious grandeur.
Like certain massively popular shows (*cough*Game of Thrones*cough*) and long-running TV series (oh, Dr Who…) and literary sagas (Wheel of Time, anyone?), I’ve felt like getting into steampunk literature requires a certain level of commitment and dedication. Almost like going on a first date with the person you just know your parents want you to marry. Intimidating, no?
But I’ve always found it hard to say no to a compelling cover, and when I was rushing in and out of my local library branch a couple of days ago to print something, with no intention of picking up a new book (there are more unread library books waiting their turn under my bed than I’m willing to acknowledge…) I was nevertheless arrested by the cover of this one book – poised tantalizingly near the exit, as always. (Cunning librarians. Hmmph.)
It looked like your standard cardboard-character romance novel at first glance, with the obligatorily stunning male with equally attractive female adorning the cover. But what drew my attention back was their decidedly recognizable steampunk outfits – he in a long leather coat, Victorian era waistcoat, and leather bound monocle fashioned like a pirate patch over his left eye; she in obligatory goggles and a variation of the leather corset/peasant blouse and skirt/leather gunbelt outfit I wore last year for Halloween (sans gunbelt. I was trying to be a gypsy, you see…), and when I picked it up to flip through and read the blurb, all the mentions of airships and mad scientists and snippets of a gorgeously realized alternate world had me breaking my no-new-books rule in the few seconds it took to scan it out.
The book was called Riveted and it was the third in a series of steampunk romance novels – the Iron Seas trilogy – by Meljean Brook, but luckily I didn’t notice this until I was already sucked into the story. You see, I’m not a massive fan of lunging into books midway through a series – I’d much rather prefer to figure out what came first and go from there. Only exception was Harry Potter, which I read in 3-2-1 order, before re-reading from 1-4…but that’s another story. And yes, I still haven’t finished it. See what I mean about getting into sagas…?
Anyway, Riveted begins with the story of Annika Fridasdottor, an engineer onboard the airship Phatéon, piloted by the imposing lady commander, Captain Vashon.
They exist in a world where the dominant enemy is a mysterious force from the Far East known simply as the Horde, whose historical reign of terror has been based on their technology – they infect people with nanoagents to make them stronger and heal faster…but also to control them as slaves with the microscopic machines, using signals broadcast from radio towers. Centuries before, the people of Europe and Africa had fled across the Atlantic Ocean to escape the Horde, and set up gargantuan mechanical sentinels along the coast of the New World to protect themselves, should the Horde ever develop a navy and follow them across the ocean.
A few hundred years later, the Horde never did follow them across, the sentinels have fallen into disrepair, and the various nations forming the New World are facing their own issues of war, poverty and strife. Many of the Hordes former slaves have broken free due to a series of revolutions that destroyed many of the controlling towers, and fled to what remains of England and Europe, and some to the New World. But with all that history, the inhabitants of the New World are understandably wary and often downright hostile towards anyone infected with the nanoagents, or whose limbs have in any way been mechanically reconstructed with steel parts because these would indicate the presence of nanoagents fusing flesh and steel.
Annika is not who she appears to be. Over one hundred years prior to the events of the book, volcanic eruptions drove away all the inhabitants of Iceland, leaving the island abandoned and prone to ghostly stories of witches, trolls and mysterious evil. This is the ideal place for a group of women escaping the Horde – and in one woman’s case, a reviled arranged marriage – to set up their homes and perpetuate the myths through disguised mechanical trolls in order to ensure that the island remains isolated. This is Hannasvik, a community of women over a hundred years in existence, even though to the outside world, it might as well not exist. But Annika is from there, and she wants desperately to return, but she is on a mission.
She has been onboard the airship for four years, searching for her sister Källa, who left their tiny hidden community of women after a careless mistake made by Annika threatened to expose their hidden world to the hostile New World. Källa, taking the blame for the act, left Hannasvik, exiled by the elders. But ever since then, Annika has been flying from port to port, driven by guilt and yearning for her sister, placing advertisements in the local newsheets in the hopes of drawing her back home.
When the story begins, she is leaving one of such ports, in the kingdom of Castile, a poverty-stricken New World land in the tight grip of a cruel queen, where the smallest act of charity could land the giver in jail, or worse. On her way back to board her airship, a Castilian guard, accusing her in a language she doesn’t speak, accosts her. In her desperation, she appeals to him first in French, then in English, then in Norse. Just as it seems she is about to disappear into one of their famously horrifying jails, a mysterious man steps in to help her. He speaks her language, and Castilian, and explains to her that her colourful clothing has gotten her mistaken for an assassin being searched for by the Queen’s guards. As this stranger speaks, the guard lets her go, finding the man to be a greater threat than she is; his monocle is fused to his left eye, and his entire left arm is made of steel. An infected man.
Unlike the New Worlders, Annika is unafraid of those infected by the Horde, as it is a more common sight in Europe – in fact, she’s fascinated by the sleekness and responsiveness of his prosthetics, and they strike up a conversation as he escorts her safely back to her airship to board. She climbs up using the crew’s ladder, and having turned down his offer to dine with him, assumes she will never see him again. She is wrong, however. The man’s name is David Kentewess, and he is on his own mission. Ostensibly travelling on the Phatéon as leader of an expedition to map the long-untouched areas of Iceland that lie beyond the fringe fishing villages that have slowly sprung up, in reality his reason for going is to attempt to fulfil a promise made to a dying woman. Through this chance encounter with Annika, he has just discovered that she may hold the key to all he’s been searching over a decade for.
This novel was very interesting in the way it unfolded each little mystery in its own time. As much a mystery story as it was a historical (alternate-historical?) thriller, neither of these story elements were trumped by the romantic aspect to it. With many novels that combine romance with anything else (detective story/romance! suspense thriller/romance!…etc., etc.) the emphasis is invariably on the romantic developments, with a little less effort seemingly being placed on developing the story and plot in all its intricacy. Not so here. The storyline emerged organically, with its attendant mysteries unfolding accordingly, and the romantic aspect of it never seemed forced or jammed in, something I have seen happen many, many times, and it just feels strained. It’s like, ooh, super-compelling mystery and oh…now they’re taking each other’s clothes off…? Okayyyy…??
But here, you could actually see their relationship developing alongside – and in response to – the events unfolding in the novel. David is on the airship as part of an expedition from a geological survey society, together with his expedition partners Dooley and Goltzius. Their mission from the Society that sent them is to map and survey Iceland to check the viability of returning to live on the centuries-abandoned island. Once she finds out his plans, Annika knows she has to find a way to get a warning message home to Hannasvik, to ensure they are prepared to defend their home.
David, meanwhile, has picked up clues about her, and is at the same time trying his hardest to pry information out of her about her origins, because he is convinced that she knows where his late mother came from. She, in turn, is fiercely protective of her home and the secret not only of its location but of its very existence, so even when she learns the heartbreaking reason for his quest, she refuses to help him out of greater loyalty to her family and home.
But then when their airship is attacked and they cross paths with a man whose grandiose and ruthless scientific visions to create a new source of energy out of the volcanoes in Iceland mean potential devastation for Annika and the women of Hannasvik, she and David are thrown together to stop his mad schemes, and they begin to realize that in order to survive even the next day, they have to work together and use each other’s expertise. And the deeper they are drawn into the tumultuous events, the more they realize the depth of their own need…for each other.
A truly compelling read, I particularly liked the way Ms. Brooks switched seamlessly from Annika’s perspective to David’s and back again throughout the story. You really get a sympathetic sense of each one’s thought process and growing understanding of, and attraction towards each other. In Annika’s case, she is constantly, though often unconsciously, trying to prove to herself that she is better, stronger, braver than what she grew up believing of herself, lurking as she did in the shadow of her warrior sister Källa. And David, with all of his imposing physical capabilities and fierce intelligence, is constantly and acutely aware of his scars and perceived defects in the eyes of society. The prosthetics which allowed him to see again through a set of nanoagent-aided mechanical lenses, and which replaced his destroyed legs and arm with uncannily organic steel are also the source of his constant discomfort while in the company of people who either sympathise too effusively or avoid acknowledging them entirely. All except Annika, who is the first woman to see him as simply a man, no more, no less.
I also liked the pacing of the exposition – you only got a flashback when it moved the story forward, and that way you didn’t have to keep flipping back chapters trying to figure out what they were referring to with each new revelatory bombshell.
The book also had some interesting ideas about the dangers of prejudice and the intricacies of societal development, and how a twist one way or the other down the historical timeline can have such intense implications for the things we take so much for granted in the modern world. Things like diverse sexual orientations, women’s rights, and social welfare are addressed, as well as an interesting emphasis on women in default positions of power (Captain Vashon, the unseen Queen of Castile, Källa) are all explored in this novel – not in a way that necessarily pushes any one message, but in a way that makes one think about it all, and compare it to how things turned out in this, non-alternate world we live in.
I also really liked the character development. In my book, a good story is when you can actually see the evolution of a character, or characters, and it’s always great when it feels like there are no supporting characters, when each person, down to the character with the briefest mention, feels fresh, well rounded, and alive.
Riveted was definitely a good impulse read, and a painless introduction to the steampunk genre – blended as it was with romance. I will most likely be checking out the other two books in the series.
Once I’m done with the ones under my bed, that is.
I found this alternate cover – the UK version, I think – and it’s actually a more accurate depiction of Annika the way she is described in the novel…so here you go!