It’s been a good long while since I last read anything in the steampunk vein. This isn’t because I’ve tired of it – far from it, to be truthful, since I really enjoy the genre and would love nothing more than to keep reading as much of it as I can. But it’s been difficult finding steampunk that I really enjoy; my last steampunk read, The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma, turned out to be a disappointment, and has put me off the genre for a solid five months.
My primary problem is a certain lack of subtlety, and a lack of solid characterization and plot in favor of what some have termed “world-building.” The difficulty with steampunk is that it is, in my opinion, a fairly young genre, one that hasn’t properly established its own conventions and tropes. It’s still groping around in the dark in that sense, trying to establish itself as its own entity separate from the other genres that gave it birth and from which it still draws much of what it is. While this mercurial nature of the genre offers opportunities for incredible creativity, it also means that sometimes, writers who do not have a firm vision for their universe wind up spending a lot of time “showing off” airships and fanciful steam-powered analytical engines in an attempt to make their work “steampunk.”
But while steampunk is indeed a very visual genre, it is not all about airships and analytical engines, either – those glorious visuals have to be backed up by solid characters and an excellent plot. Not many novels succeed in this regard, and so it was a very pleasant surprise when Hope threw Sam Starbuck’s The Dead Isle my way.
The Dead Isle is a globe-trotting espionage-style gem of a steampunk novel about Clare Fields and Jack Baker. Jack is an Engineer studying at Harvard, while Clare is a Creationist – which does not mean the same thing it does in common parlance. A Creationist in the universe of The Dead Isle is someone who can work what might be considered magic: pulling Created items, even buildings, out of thin air which serve whatever purpose they intend the Creation to have, but without understand how the thing works; it just does. Such Creations, though, don’t last very long: only for as long as their Creationist can hold them, and such focus depends on the individual Creationist. Engineering, however, means precisely what it means in common parlance, and therefore in many ways stands directly opposite Creationism. Despite this (or maybe because of this), Clare and Jack are great friends, and it is their relationship that pretty much forms the backbone of the rest of the novel.
Characterization is something a lot of steampunk novels seem to miss, but it is something that The Dead Isle does fantastically well. Clare and Jack are brilliant characters on their own – easy to love and connect with – but it is their relationship that makes the whole novel work. Quirky partnerships are another trope that seem to be cropping up in a lot of steampunk novels nowadays, but not all novels are capable of creating a dynamic between characters that doesn’t fall absolutely flat for whatever reason. Clare and Jack, though, don’t have that problem – mostly because, as individuals, they’re already stellar enough. When in each other’s company, though, they become even more fantastic, even more electric as they play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the way that only two people who have been friends for a very long time can.
Into this already tight-knit relationship come Ellis Graveworthy and Purva de la Fitte. Graveworthy is introduced as a writer of somewhat controversial stature, but later turns out to be a spy in the service of the British Crown, looking for an Engineer who will build an airship for him. Purva de la Fitte, on the other hand, is a pirate – a Baratarian pirate, specifically, who somehow finds herself on the airship with Jack, Clare and Ellis as they make their way to the Dead Isle – otherwise known as Australia.
As with Clare and Jack, Purva and Ellis are interesting characters in their own right: Purva in particular fascinates me, since she’s made in a very similar mode to characters like Scott Lynch’s Zamira Drakasha and Ezri Delmastro (from Red Seas Under Red Skies), and I really love female characters like that: strong, intelligent, and defiant – and more than capable of backing that up with genuine skills. Ellis, on the other hand, fits into the mold of mysterious gentleman mentor/companion that seems to crop up in a lot of steampunk novels, but he is neither cold nor aloof, least of all when he spends time with Jack and Clare. While it’s clear that his guidance of his two younger colleagues has an effect on them and thus their characterization, that same friendship changes Ellis, too. He is not permanently frozen into that “mentor/guide” position he starts out in, and that’s a very good thing.
But what makes this novel stand out from all the rest I’ve read is how it addresses the issues of gender, racism and imperialism that runs as an undercurrent in steampunk – an undercurrent that some writers either passively or actively ignore. It may be that steampunk, as a genre, is still too young to have the necessary vocabulary, so to speak, to address such weighty issues, since it’s hardly sorted itself out in terms of tropes and conventions, but despite this The Dead Isle manages to address it nevertheless, and in a manner that, I think, that is both elegant and thought-provoking. It is only when they arrive in Australia that any of these themes come to light, mostly because the Australia of this novel is very – and uncomfortably – similar to apartheid South Africa with very heavy Victorian/turn-of-the-century chauvinistic overtones. Also thrown in there are historical policies enacted in Australia regarding the Aborigines: policies that stripped them of not just their land, but their very culture, as well.
It is the latter that I find exceptionally heartbreaking. Coming from a country whose own cultural heritage and pre-colonial past have become nearly lost and very muddled, the pain the Koori (as they call themselves in the novel) describe about having their heritage – the Dreamtime, the Songlines, all of it – slowly slipping away from them as a result of colonialism is both one of the best moments of this novel, and one of its most painful. Clare – who, it turns out, has been using glamour to hide the fact that she is Koori, and not Caucasian – returns a large chunk of that heritage to her people (in a very beautiful, emotional scene of self-discovery and determination), and leads them to victory over their colonial overlords, the triumph they feel is a triumph that the reader feels in heart and gut.
Overall, The Dead Isle is a brilliant example of what steampunk is – and an example of how aspiring steampunk writers should write. It has the usual visual accoutrements of steampunk, including an airship, but it does not rely on those exclusively to create the world and to breathe life into the novel itself. In fact, the gears and the cogs stay where they should: in the background, supporting a cast of brilliant characters; an extraordinary plot that moves along at a decent clip and has some excellent twists along the way; and themes that steampunk is in the unique position of addressing, and which more writers should address and interrogate in their own novels. The Dead Isle is not just steampunk done right – it is steampunk as it could – and should – be, at its best, in the future.