starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Vanderhooft, JoSelle, ed. Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. New York: Torquere Press, 2011.

The one advantage to my tardiness in posting this review (and finishing the book!) is that I can begin it by saying that Steam-Powered II, the sequel to this excellent, rich anthology, will be available on 26 October. I looked forward to this anthology very much, and based on its quality, I am very much looking forward to the next anthology as well--the excellent TOC for which can be seen here. In fact, Steam-Powered is apparently going to be an annual series, which is awesome.

One of the things about steampunk is that to some extent it's in the eye of the beholder--one person's steampunk is another person's gaslamp fantasy is, often, another person's nostalgia for colonialism, dressed up with clockwork. The trains ran on time back in the day, and so do the dirigibles! Unquestionably, the great thing about Steam-Powered is that it totally shatters the defaults of steampunk stories by going far beyond their norms in terms of its protagonists, its settings, and its take-it-or-leave-it approach to alternate history.

This is a very long anthology, nearly 400 pages in print, and I think just about every story manages to credibly live up to the anthology's subtitle; every piece has lesbian content, varying from teen to erotica-level explicit. Every story, I think, managed to make the lesbian elements--even when set against a variably historical background--feel organic, which is an achievement in and of itself.

Inevitably, I found some stories to be stronger than others, and there's at least one in here that doesn't, to me, seem like steampunk to me at all, but again, eye--or pince-nez--of the beholder, right? What I can say is that the best stories in this collection are very, very good, and well worth the price of the book all on their own.

N.K. Jemisin's "The Effluent Engine" is probably the best-known of these stories, as well as one of the best, since Jemisin put it up on her website to fundraise for earthquake relief in Haiti in January 2010; it follows the exploits of a Haitian spy in New Orleans in the 19thC, and is generally awesome. Shweta Narayan's "The Padishah Begum's Reflections" is also another standout, featuring not only Mughal steampunk (and a refreshingly canny Eternal Empress) but also an intricate structure that works brilliantly. My favorite, though, is unquestionably Rachel Manija Brown's "Steel Rider," a sort of alternate Western Gundam Jewish steampunk romp that is 110% made of awesome, and deftly handled and characterized throughout.

There are other very good stories in here; in fact, I don't think there are any that made me want to put the book down, though I did find at least a few questionable for various reasons, either too much plot or not enough of it or too much sex, or, in the case of D.L. MacInnes "Owl Song" and Mike Allen's "Sleepless, Burning LIfe," a whiff of exoticization. By the same token, Mikki Kendall's "Copper for Trickster" didn't have enough passion for all the horrible things in it, and I disliked the ending, but unquestionably someone else would say it provided a needed counterweight to the hopeful, if not outright optimistic, conclusions of many of the other stories. In any case, you ought to read this book, and make your own decisions, as well as enjoy these visions of alternate worlds for yourself.

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