Thursday, September 1, 2011
What do a Knight of a Round Table, a handful of street urchins, and a governess trying to get out of her state of genteel poverty have in common?
I don't know. Not quite yet, but I want to. The novel, Steam and Sorcery (book 1 of her Gaslight Chronicles) by Cindy Spencer Pape is set in a London where "clockwork pets were all the rage in high society; [where] vampyres and other creatures of the night were more real than most upper-class people chose to believe."
So far, I've learned that the Knight has a very forward-thinking aunt, tolerant house staff, and a particular skill with ebony canes. I've also discovered that the street urchins have questionable talents that help them survive on the streets of Wapping, the smellier side of London. One is a tinkerer who builds mechanical pets that keep the children safe. Another can see Sir Merrick even after the Knight has uttered words of invisibility. Vampyres and werewolves lurk on both sides of the law and the children have just helped Merrick defeat one in the face of the other.
And the governess? Well, Sir Merrick has just taken the children into his bachelor townhouse to keep them out of the way of the vamps and he, his aunt and the house staff are badly in need of a governess to guide the urchins while keeping the secrets of the household.
We are ankle deep in steampunk meeting the paranormal and though it could be a steaming pile that we step into, it isn't. Pape's writing is crisp, her images clear without being too detailed. The sights and smells of Industrial London where steam and coal color the fog and night soil flies out of upstairs windows form a realistic backdrop for the coming adventure. Unlike another well-known book I've tried but failed to read, Pape keeps her detail relevant. She lets us fill in the finer detail, does not name-drop props every sentence, as some have been known to do. Nor are her descriptions written for the sake of being descriptive. An excellent set designer, Pape creates setting with full-sensory disgust so that we know where we are at all times.
Casting is a piece of the speculative fiction character puzzle that can make or break the story for me. Stock characters are fine when they are cleverly placed. Finding a potential Knight as a street urchin was the first hint that this story was going to be interesting. The genteel and sympathetic bachelor taking in the street children? Another neat angle. We had met their future governess within the first few pages of the novel and again as she is being accosted and blamed by the family she has most recently worked for. I had fleeting impressions of a future Holmes and Watson and their Irregulars. Oh and did I mention that Papes's version of LeStrade has a werewolf for an assistant? I didn't? Do you see now why I'm trying to hurry this so I can get back to the story?
So begins an ongoing project. I'm calling it "The First Fifty". I've been told by a few people that if they don't like the novel within the first fifty pages they put it down. With so many books and so little time, I think a fifty-page rule is a good idea. Not only that, but I think it's such a good idea that I am going to use it here. I've acquired a bunch of new books looking like steampunk and decided to do reviews of them. But, I'm willing to read only the first fifty pages (or, since they are Kindle versions, the first 15-20%) and report back.
So, my report on Steam and Sorcery? Definitely a go-ahead. I'll let you know if it lives up to first impressions, but you'll excuse me if I duck out now.
Posted by Melanie at 12:18 AM