Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Romancing The Steam

By Meghan B

Full of lies!
Recently, I have fallen victim to the New Releases display at my local bookstore. The category-less pile of bright, shiny new novels has become a den of lies.

I'm not a romance reader at all. I like my books to be full of vampires, detectives and snark. I enjoy a good urban fantasy novel, I go mindless in my fangirl adoration for Neil Gaiman. Romance novels? My mother reads those, full of cowboys and handymen and other stereotypes of manliness. Romance novels? Not for this girl.

The New Releases section, that hive of scum and villainy, has tricked me into buying romance novels. I've picked up many shiny new novels with covers that are free of shirtless men, only to discover they contain romance inside! Not just any novels either, steampunk romance novels! My mind, it is blown.

Romance novels are quick to pick up trends. First is was vampires and werewolves, now it seems they've picked up the familiar tropes of steampunk and sci-fi. Even worse (or better?) many of the steampunk romance novels seem to be actually... well, good.

My first foray into steampunk romance novels was the innocently named Steamed by Katie MacAlister. The cover was an artist swirl of cover and a girl wearing a corset, pocketwatch and holding goggles. Count me in! In my haste to buy what I thought was a nice fantasy romp, I completely missed the small print that announced the novel to be "a steampunk romance". In fact, I got so caught up in the marvelous world building that I didn't notice it was romance until the lead character dropped his trousers and made advances at the stubborn and brilliant lady airship pilot.

Despite my hesitation and shock at reading a romance novel, I found myself unable to put this one down. It started out slow and kind of cheesy (the author may have been trying too hard, with very thin allusions of Abney Park in the first chapter), but the world the author created was every bit as deep and satisfying as a regular fantasy novel. There was just a lot more shagging in it than usual. Along with the sex, there was also a complicated war, airship pirates and daring uses of steam technology.

Upon finishing the book, I put it away and considered it a happy accident. A fun trashy read for a wintery afternoon. I figured I wouldn't make the same mistake again. "How many steampunk romance novels could be out there?", I thought. Oh, how wrong I was... 

Months later, I was again fooled by the lawless pile of New Releases. This time I thought I was safe. Snuggled between the newest paperback from Terry Pratchett and a Gail Carriger novel was Warrior by Zoe Archer. I picked it up, glanced at the back and was delighted to find a story about a general in a steampunk version of Mongolia, fighting evil scientists and wizards. Sign me up! I gleefully took it home and got comfy in a chair to read it. Again, I was thrown into a well thought out world full of science, magic, war... and sex. I couldn't believe it. I had done it again. Another romance disguised as fantasy, and it was brilliant! Not only did I finish it in one day, but I went back to the bookstore the following week. Feeling like a fugitive in a strange land, I pushed my dignity aside and actually walked into the romance section to purchase the remaining three books in the series.

This was repeated every few months, with novels like The Iron Duke by Meljean Brooks and The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber. Stunning works with thoughtful, imaginative world building and wonderful characters. Those characters just tended to get it on with each other every so often.

I look at the New Releases table with a wary and hopeful eye now. The hodgepodge of cheerful paperbacks has yielded some incredible reads over the past year and I find myself actually looking forward to new volumes in the steampunk romance series I've come to enjoy. More and more, I find myself slowly walking into the stacks of the romance section, on the hunt for more steampunk. Every time I feel like I'm doing something illicit. I pretend to look lost, as if my expression conveys "What? Romance? Me? No, no, I'm just lost on my way to sci-fi, I swear" to anyone that glances in my direction.

What I've come to discover is that steampunk and romance go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Two unexpected tastes that works so well together. I know romance publishers are scrambling to cash in on a new trends, but I'm overjoyed by the works that are coming out in this new genre.

I, for one, welcome our new steampunk romance novel overlords.
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  1. Are the men well rounded characters of their own? Do they have internal dialogue that has nothing to do with the female protagonist(s)?

    Then I don't see any problem.

  2. They do, which is wild, huh? Honestly, they are all mostly sci-fi in nature apart from the pages dealing with sexytimes.

  3. This is an awesome steampunk romance novella I came across: "Steam & Sorcery" by Cindy Spencer Pape. Great read.

  4. Heck, this steampunk thing is even getting into erotic fiction. For example, the characters in Jeweled by Anya Bast ride in hot air balloons and are discovering various Victorian-esque contraptions and the printing press along with their extremely graphic (but well-written!) sex.

    Also, I grabbed Steam & Sorcery for my Kindle. Great review, Alice!

  5. I loved The Iron Duke. Brook's novella, Here Be Monsters from the anthology Burning Up, is the first story in the series and also very good. Me, I am eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, Heart of Steel, which comes out in November.
    I'd also recommend Native Star by M.K. Hobson which was just nominated for a Nebula.
    And Devon Monk has a new series starting with Dead Iron:The Age of Steam which will be out in July.