Feb 26, 2013

Badlands by Seleste DeLaney

I haven't done a proper interview with a writer here at Steampunk Scholar since my chat with Arthur Slade, author of The Hunchback Assignments in fall of 2010. But even that was an anomaly, with the only other interview I've done at Steampunk Scholar being Rudy Rucker in 2009. By the fall of 2009, I knew that the focus of this blog was going to be steampunk books, and reviews were my primary way of achieving that.

In the wake of finishing my dissertation, I've had trouble returning to the blog in earnest, all the while piling up steampunk reading without review. I haven't been an idle reader, just an idle blogger. But as I was reading Badlands by Seleste deLaney, I found myself with questions and observations begging to be submitted to the author herself. As I switched from Badlands to Kady Cross's The Girl in the Steel Corset, more questions leapt to mind. Granted, I could ruminate on my own answers to these questions, but some were related to inspiration and industry, and in the case of deLaney, I knew I would only be speculating. Unlike many steampunk writers, deLaney's approach to Badlands was not grounded in nineteenth century literature or history. As I found out, it was grounded in the desire to write a damn fine space western, inspired by a Luis Royo painting, and realized through a competition for steampunk romance. Sometimes, it pays to ask the author what they were up to.

Mike Perschon: While I realize this is supposed to be the question I close with, I have to ask about a sequel to Badlands, given that I was reading Badlands on my iPad Kindle app, and I checked to see my position in the book. I was thinking, "Wow, this is really gearing up, I must be around the halfway point by now," but I was actually very near the end. So my first question must be, is there a sequel in the works? Are we going to see more of the world of Badlands?

Seleste deLaney: Yes, there is a sequel! It actually comes out at the end of April, and it's already up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for pre-order. It's called Clockwork Mafia, and it takes off about six months after the end of Badlands. The series is planned for four books (length may vary as Clockwork Mafia is nearly twice as long as Badlands), with each book revolving around one of the four main women (and their love interests, of course). The last two are not under contract yet, so I have zero information on release.

Mike: Connected to that question, I'm wondering about the process of world-building for you. While you make a few quick nods to real-world history, most of the world of Badlands could have been a fully secondary or other world, like Middle-Earth, or Arrakis. Why did you forego the full-fantasy sandbox in favour of a an alternate history?

Seleste: Badlands started out as a space western with all these crazy planets that had each undergone their own mini-evolution of humans and... it sucked. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2009 and I shelved it as soon as I hit my 50,000 words because I hated it so much. Literally the only bit that worked for me was the core story, everything else felt wrong. Then a call came out for steampunk romance novellas and a friend poked me about doing something for it. I immediately went back to that story of the warrior woman on the desert planet and the captain of the trading ship that rescues her. Suddenly everything that didn't work as a space western I could see working perfectly on the smaller, more intimate scale of an old west steampunk. From there, I took a look at my crew, did some shuffling around (and re-naming), and things just started falling into place with slavery and the gold rush.

Mike: I hear what you're saying about taking the space opera/western and moving it to a single planet. When I was working on my steampunk Star Wars article, I kept thinking about how interesting it would be to reimagine the original Star Wars trilogy as a steampunk story taking place on one planet. Hoth simply becomes the North or South Pole - Tattooine is some desert, a distant land that the Colonial Empire hasn't yet reached. And I think that was what I sensed about your approach to world-building here. It felt so utterly out-of-this-world, that I kept forgetting it was taking place in a version of America. That's not a bad thing - I'm not one of those steampunk fans who demands historical fidelity. That's usually last on my list of requirements for good steampunk. It can add to the enjoyment, but sometimes historical verisimilitude just gets in the way of a good story.

Seleste: I totally agree with the Star Wars idea! Love that. Honestly, one of the things I love about steampunk is that freedom to twist history. Too much history frankly bores me.

Mike: Is that a devil-may-care attitude about being true to real-world history? I know some steampunk fans are hardcore about there being serious, in-depth history in their steampunk. 

Seleste: I have a "get the reader engaged" attitude. I find in-depth history boring, so I snag bits and pieces to use, but I don't get bogged down in it (which is also why I don't write straight historical). For example, Clockwork Mafia...at the time the book takes place, the mafia was still most commonly known as the Black Hand, but most readers wouldn't know that. Readers get mafia. I don't have to bog down the pacing to explain it.

Mike: In some ways, you have a "get the reader engaged" attitude to the love story as well. Is the accelerated "loins a-quiver" response to the object of desire in a romance novel the romance genre's equivalent to action heroes kicking ass effortlessly?
Seleste: The "loins-a-quiver" response is fairly common in romance. That instant attraction and spark and "oh-shit-who-is-this-person?" is part of the fairy tale aspect of romance. Because of the limited time frame of most romance novels (and definitely of my Badlands stories), the insta-attraction is a necessity unless the characters have known each other for a while. I will say, however, that if I am allowed to take the series where I plan, every romance will be different in tone and scope.

Mike: I like that term, "insta-attraction." That's definitely the allure of romance, even for guys, though I'm sure few will admit it. The NaNoWriMo origin of Badlands answers another question I had concerning length. As a novella, Badlands rushes along at a breakneck pace, which works well for both the action and romance, but leaves readers interested in the world you've built feeling a bit let down.

Seleste: Yes, the novella length did involve very minimal information on the world. The funny part is I tried to inject more into Clockwork Mafia in a couple places, but it slowed the narrative too much and was cut by my editor. One section of it though will be on my website later because I know it's a question readers have about the world and the men who are part of Badlands' society. So, basically, I'm more than happy to answer questions about the world, but a lot of things don't make it into the books because we don't want to lose the adventure-style pacing.

Mike: I love the idea of using material that doesn't make the book at your website. That's a great way to expand the world without losing narrative pace. I'm keen on it as well, since I'm interested in the cultures you've built up, especially given the "warrior woman" Ever's heritage. How does someone with that background end up fighting as part of an elite warrior society?

Seleste: Ever. Dear, wonderful, messed-up Ever. One of the thing about patriarchal societies that has always dumbfounded me is the idea of "the first born son." First born prince becomes king. Second born (if I recall in many societies) is supposed to become clergy. I have no idea what happens to the younger ones. But there is this mindset of who does what just based on their birth order that makes no sense to me. When I saw the women laying claim to the Badlands and "taming" it, that was one change I thought was more female-minded. People do the job they're suited to, with minimal care to birth order or even family. Ever was born an old soul, very angry with the world, but very very good with weapons. She'd be ill-suited to be a midwife or a cook or... pretty much anything other than a warrior. So, in the world of the Badlands, that's what she was free to become.

Mike: She's a very easy character to visualize, and not for the obvious reason a male might find it easy to visualize a woman who runs around topless for the first half of the book, though it is about her naked torso: the tattoos. I don't think Ever fits the standard steampunk heroine in her initial outfit, or lack thereof!

Seleste:Badlands was actually inspired by a painting by Luis Royo called "The Wait." A friend showed it to me a long time ago and I knew I had to write the story of the woman in the painting. And honestly, switching that from space western to steampunk was what got me started. There’s a long history of tattooed warriors and I wanted to examine that on a deeper level. You actually find out more about Ever’s tattoos in my favorite scene in Clockwork Mafia. (Oddly, for a romance, my favorite scene is between Henri and Ever, not Henri and her hero.)

Mike: Since Badlands was originally a space western, was the romance between Ever and the captain always an element, or did you add it afterwards? I felt frustrated every time Ever and the Captain were working out their sexual tension, since I absolutely LOVED the opening and wanted more of seeing Ever in her ass-kicking element. Of course, you're writing romance, so that element must be there, and I know from reading reviews on Goodreads that most of your fans loved the whole book, so perhaps I'm just not the target demographic! Still, I have to say, and I hope you don't take this as a criticism, that I'd like to see Seleste deLaney write a steampunk adventure without any pressure to include the Nookie.

Seleste: There was always a romantic element between Ever (the only name that remained from the original draft LOL) and the captain, but it was slower building because they simply had more time. One of the things about my writing that some people love and others find infuriating is that I'm a big fan of...mashing things together. A rollicking adventure is awesome, but I like intrigue too. Intrigue's great, but where's the romance? And so on and so forth. So, I tend to write things like (for example) Badlands--a steampunk-action-adventure-romance. For that series, there will definitely always be romance, but I do have plans (as soon as I finish up a couple series I have going at the moment) for a steampunk-parallel-universe-fairy-tale-adventure.

Mike: That mash-up approach is one of the hallmarks of steampunk.  Did you see what you were doing as steampunk, or did that designation come from others? I only ask because Badlands,while recognizably steampunk in its aesthetic approach at points, is also very much its own thing. As you say, you mash many things up to come up with something that is familiar without being terribly derivative.

The author herself: Speak softly and carry a large gun while wearing a little hat.

Seleste: I saw it as steampunk, but others confirmed the designation for me. You have to understand though, I was introduced to steampunk first via clothes at a convention, then through random conversations on Twitter where all I thought was, "I want to know more." So I went in search of a way for me to understand steampunk. I'm kind of an odd duck in that I could read/watch a ton of things, but there is always a singular entity that defines a genre in my head. For me, that came in the realization that Briscoe County, Jr. was steampunk. Suddenly all that Victorian London and otherworldly stuff didn't matter. BCJ I understood. BCJ I LOVED. So was that straight-up steampunk? Not for the hard-core, narrow-definition people. For me, it is. 

Mike: Okay, given the reference to hard-core, narrow-definition steampunks, combined with your outspoken nature, I'm dying to hear what you'd say to someone on a panel at a steampunk convention who claims that steampunk needs to be political, or serious, in a way that clearly indicates that your work isn't being included in the "club."

Seleste: I'm prone to laughing at people like that. Just as with any genre there are those things that follow all the "rules." I'm much more Pirates of the Caribbean in my way of thinking: "They're more like guidelines."

Mike: Do you have a definition for steampunk?

Seleste: For me, steampunk needs three things (and I'm flexible here even): gadgets, corsets, and the punk angle (some sort of bucking against the system/sticking it to the man/undermining political...blah blah blah) In it's own way, my stuff is very political, but it's not very serious. It's commentary about the state of women's rights and the amount of decay in the political world as we know it. But if I just wanted to write about that, I'd blog about it and fall asleep at my keyboard. (It's great for other people, I'm sure. It's just not my thing.) I'd rather wrap that up in adventure and romance, and I'm not afraid to tell that to people.

Mike: What steampunk have you read, and what titles are among your faves?

Seleste: Most of the steampunk I've read has been of the romance and YA variety. I really enjoyed Scott Westerfeld's YA series, and I love the Steampunk Chronicles by Kady Cross. And of course I have Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger and Delilah Dawson and... LOL there's a lot. If I had to pick a favorite though? Steampunk Chronicles. I'm so excited for book 3 that I get all giddy thinking about it.

Mike: That's encouraging, since Kady is up next here at the blog! She's already been really generous with her responses to my questions.

Seleste: Kady Cross (and all her other names--that's just the one that she is in my head) was incredibly sweet every time I've spoken with her--online or in person. I could go on and on with the awesome authors I've met at events. Gail Carriger was incredibly friendly. Suzanne Lazear... I adore her. Karina Cooper is fantastic. But...as I said above, there are always exceptions, and I've met a few of them too. The point you mentioned about people defining steampunk (narrowly) makes a difference. So, I don't necessarily think there is some huge sweeping camaraderie among all authors of steampunk. When you narrow that field to steampunk romance authors, I think there's more of a "team" attitude. Most of us know what it's like to be the odd man out in those "serious steampunk" discussions, so we're very supportive of each other in general.

Mike: There's an anecdote about you writing a book at age 12 in your bio in Badlands.  I submitted an application to a writer's college about that age, so I'm always interested to know what spurred people to start writing, and who inspires them to keep doing it.

Seleste: At age 12? I don't remember. LOL I know Walter Farley was an inspiration earlier than that, and around age 12 was when he responded to a fan letter I wrote for a class project. (He's also one of the reasons I love horseback riding.) The thing is, my writing career was...put on hold shortly after that because I was convinced by family that I needed to "get serious about my future." So I did. Writing took a backseat and I went out and got a degree in chemistry. I was teaching high school and wrote a sample paper for one of my classes to be able to reference if they were stuck. After reading it, one of my students asked me why I wasn't a writer. That was truly the thing that inspired me to try again (many) years later once I was staying home with my kids. One of these days, I'll dedicate a book to her (and stalk her online for an address so I can send her a copy). From there, my biggest inspiration was Kelley Armstrong. I joined the online writing group on her forums and the people there whipped me into shape. Kelley herself actually pushed me to attend my first Romantic Times convention and introduced me to her agent. She's been an amazing mentor and support. I will never be able to thank her enough.

Mike: Finally, beyond the forthcoming sequel to Badlands, is there anything else we should be watching out for from Seleste deLaney?

Seleste: Remember how I said I liked to mash things together? I also like to (need to) mix up what I write--it helps keep my mind fresh for the next project so I don't burn out on one genre. To that end, I have an urban fantasy series called Blood Kissed. The first book, Kiss of Death, is out now as well as two prequel short stories, and the second novel, Kiss of Life, should be out before the end of the year. I also do paranormal romance short stories for Evernight Publishing. And I have a couple contemporary romances coming this fall from Entangled Publishing. I think Gaming for Keeps might be of interest to some of your readers. It takes place at a sci-fi convention and involves a super-secret government agency called TRAIT. I usually tell people if they put Chuck and Leverage in a blender and add a little more romance, that series (For Keeps) would be what came out. I'm really excited to see people's reactions to it. 

Feb 7, 2013

The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress

Rudy Jan Faber's original cover concept for The Friday Society, which I absolutely adore. As with Arthur Slade's Hunchback Assignments, I think this cover captures the "gee-whiz!" "sock! POW!" nature of the narrative better than the photo-manipulated cover with real models did.

I don't so much teach short stories as use them as a means to talk about literary concepts. Likewise, I often respond to books more than I review them, using them as a means to talk about the steampunk scene at large. Besides, you can get a plot synopsis off Goodreads or Amazon. My reflections on Adrienne Kress's The Friday Society are emblematic of this, since I'm not sure a review of squee is what the book needs. There's a lot of squee out there for The Friday Society, including my assessment of it as one of my top five steampunk reads of 2012. It's fun fiction, targeted at YA readers who enjoy female protagonists and a healthy dose of amour with their adventure. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, but after four years of immersing myself in steampunk reading, playing at the fringes of steampunk culture, and hovering over debates in steampunk fora, I can hear supercilious naysayers disregarding Kress for the anachronism of her writing style alone. On the first page, an explosion is described as loud, bright, and explosion-y. This is not Gibson and Sterling, aping the writing styles of the nineteenth century. This is a cheeky modern author who uses playful tone and modern idiom to make her heroines accessible to her ostensibly YA readership. In many ways, Kress's approach to writing reminds me of Gail Carriger, but in a less Victorian fashion. Steampunk hipsters and snobs will find much to complain about in The Friday Society.

Which is one of the reasons I developed my theory of the steampunk aesthetic in the way I did. At the blog Entropic Worlds, the excellent post "Critical Engineering: A Perspective on Defining Steampunk" astutely recognizes that my "set of constraints seems to be effective at determining how steampunk something is, though not necessarily how good a work of steampunk  is." This assessment is reminiscent of Jess Nevins' division of prescriptive and descriptive approaches to defining steampunk. I am descriptive. Entropic Worlds seems to be defining steampunk prescriptively: "I am personally more interested in reading a book that does steampunk well, even if it only does it a little bit, versus a steampunk book that is unoriginal and uninteresting, regardless of how filled it is with dirigibles, aether, and parasols." Entropic Worlds' basis for good steampunk is value based, a definition that ultimately tells the genre or aesthetic where is should be going. As an educator, I applaud the impetus toward quality or greater engagement with social concerns, but this does not describe steampunk. It describes a movement in steampunk toward writing that engages these ideas. Entropic Worlds cites The Difference Engine as exemplar of how steampunk should be, citing the novel as "one of the most universally accepted examples of the genre." Locus magazine argued that The Difference Engine was too realistic to really be steampunk - in short, it wasn't gonzo enough. I tend to agree. The Difference Engine could be seen as reaction to the gonzo steampunk of Blaylock, Powers, and Jeter's Morlock Night, but is hardly the seminal archetype of what steampunk should be.

I like serious steampunk. I like steampunk that is socially significant, as Entropic Worlds recommends. And while I can read social significance into Kress's The Friday Society through the three female leads in much the same way I did when I read Alexia Tarabotti/Maccon as steampunk New Woman, I do not have the impression that this was Kress's explicit intention. I have more a sense of steampunk Charlies Angels than I do steampunk Herland. Kress's three heroines, Cora the inventor, Nellie the magician's assistant, and Michiko the blademaster, all face marginalization by the males in their life. However, this is as much a standard device of most YA fiction about young women as it is a commentary on the plight of women in the nineteenth century. I can read it socially, and I can read it politically. I can discuss how steampunk fiction addresses these concerns. But to prescriptively delineate the boundaries of good steampunk based on a work's qualitative engagement with those concerns is to ignore a significant portion of steampunk writing, consequently hobbling steampunk scholarship in the same fashion as general SF scholarship, which is often so busy talking about gender in The Left Hand of Darkness it sometimes forgets to talk about Star Trek's first onscreen interracial kiss.

I hope young readers of The Friday Society can see how Cora, Nellie, and Michiko are the navigators on their seas of fate, but in the event they don't, I'll be glad they're enjoying a page-turning adventure that allows them to explore three different personas through those women. Young readers are still discovering who they are, and Kress has done a lovely job of giving her readers three very different heroines to identify with. I like Michiko best myself, but you might think Cora is cooler. Or maybe I related to Nellie a week ago, but I feel more Michiko today. And even if I don't do that, isn't the scene where the old man gifts that awesome sword to Michiko sweet? Steampunk's pretty kickass, isn't it?

It is. And while I will continue to champion steampunk that kicks ass in a socio-political way, I'll continue to champion steampunk that just kicks literal ass. Or in the case of The Friday Society, blows shit up. Because while steampunk can be socio-political, or socio-political and fun, sometimes its just F-U-N. And The Friday Society is definitely fun. 

Feb 1, 2013

Dead Iron by Devon Monk

Just when I think I'll have extra time, another deadline beats me up and throws me around my office. This past month had me prepping a very large document for my three-year review here at Grant MacEwan University, so I had a flashback to the level of busy I was during the Ph.D.

It's all handed in now, and I'm ready to get back to writing once a week for this blog. I've got two steampunk books on the go in my reading right now, but I'm turning my review attentions further back, making good with a better-late-than-never promise to Devon Monk, who sent me Dead Iron for review many, many moons ago.
In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother's death. Then he's offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers-and now in the hands of an ancient Strange who was banished to walk this Earth.
In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he's going to save his brother and reclaim his soul once and for all...

Dead Iron is the first book in Monk's Age of Steam series, which is at two books with Tin Swift as of last summer, and Cold Copper set for release in July of 2013. Dead Iron is well-paced, imaginative steampunk-Wild-West-fantasy, with enough new twists on old ideas to keep this reader interested. And at this point in my steampunk reading career, that's saying a lot. As with most good steampunk, it's the blurring and blending of several genres that makes it so much fun. While Western-steampunk isn't anything new, Western steampunk with werewolves, Fae creatures called the Strange, and folk magic is. Western steampunk has been a fixture of the aesthetic since as early as the '60s with Wild, Wild West, or as late as the '90s with...well, Wild, Wild West (I know Rudy Rucker's 1990 Hollow Earth takes place in America, but it's not a Western). Ian R. MacCleod used Fae elements in The Light Ages in 2005. And folk magic is a fixture of steampunk as early as Keith Roberts' Pavane (1966) or as late as Karin Lowachee's Gaslight Dogs (2010), depending on how inclusive you want to be.

I wouldn't for a moment suggest that any of these works are antecedents for Dead Iron: I'm simply forestalling objections to the use of Faerie and folk magic in steampunk. Magic has always been part of the scene, from Tim Powers' Anubis Gates to Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone. But the magic of Monk's Age of Steam feels like it shares kinship with Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, crossed with the dark faerie courts of Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. My quick and dirty description of this book is to say, "Imagine Hell on Wheels got crossed with Grimm." It's not entirely accurate, but it's a decent ballpark, especially in the reference to Hell on Wheels. Dead Iron is far grittier than I'd anticipated. Something about the cover said it was on the border of the romance market, and while matters of the heart are part of Monk's tale, this book shouldn't be shelved in the romance section. That's why I held off putting up the February top bar for today. Dead Iron is not a romance. There is romance in it, for sure, but this is a straight-shooting Western in a left-of-centre alternate world where rail barons are quite literally the demons of the rails. I don't want to say a ton about plot, as I find plot summaries somewhat pointless, but there's a gunslinging werewolf with a tragic chip on his shoulder, a widowed witch with a vendetta against the Strange bastard who killed her husband, that zombiefied husband whose heart beats with love and Terminator's tenacity, and some crazy tinkering brothers in the hills who remind me of the conniving dwarves in the Niebelungelied for some reason.

Halfway through Dead Iron, I found myself mystified as to why I wasn't hearing more about this series in steampunk circles. So many fans of steampunk are fans of urban fantasy and old west, and that's effectively what is getting mashed together here. To use the language of my aesthetic theory, it's set in a fantastic nineteenth century (hyper-Victorian), contains steampunk tech powered by magic (technofantasy), and features a woman who acts with agency in a period when it was hard for women to do so (social retrofuturism). Devon Monk writes accessible, page-turning adventure fiction, in an alternate world that coheres very nicely. It was one of my favorite reads of the past year, getting a shout-out in my top 5 of 2012, despite its 2011 publication date. Don't wait like I did. Get into the Age of Steam now, so you'll be ready for book three when it comes out later this year. 

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