It’s steampunk day on the blog today! Steampunk seems like it’s everywhere despite being one of the newer subgenre/culture/aesthetic of the SF world. I’m still ok with that. It’s nifty in of itself and it hasn’t gotten so big it becomes annoying. But because steampunk is the new trendy kind of thing, I feel the need to be extra careful picking and choosing what I read in the subgenre. I don’t want to get saddled with some bandwagon shovelware that has some gears taped onto it. I am cautious with my steampunk.
So imagine my surprise when I hit a home run off a random, off the shelf find.
The Honorable Alice B. Michaels is in a life-or-death struggle for survival – socially speaking, that is. At age twenty-one, her unladylike interest in automatons, and the unfortunate deaths of most of her family from the clockwork plague, have sealed her fat as a less than desirable marriage prospect. But a series of strange occurrences is about to lead Alice in a direction quite beyond the pale.
High above the earth on the American airship USS Juniper, Gavin Ennock lives for the wind and the sky and his fiddle. After privateers attack the Juniper, he is stranded on the dank, dirty, merciless streets of London. When Alice’s estranged aunt leaves her a peculiar inheritance, she encounters Gavin under most unusual – even shocking – circumstances.
Then Alice’s inheritance attracts the attention of the Third Ward, a clandestine organization that seizes the inventions of mad geniuses the plague leaves behind – all for the good of the Empire. But even the Third Ward has secrets. And when Alice and Gavin discover them, a choice must be made between the world and the Empire, no matter the risk to all they hold dear.
Whew. That was a long one. And actually one of the more accurate Back of the Book blurbs I’ve read. If you check out the exert on the inside of the front cover, you even get to know there are zombies living in the alleys of London. Zombies are starting to get so much hype, they may reach public consciousness saturation and implode soon. It’s becoming one of those things I’m wary of now, but fortunately, the zombies aren’t just pasted in for the hell of it with this book. They’re worldbuilding, background and a few plot points. They’re not the focus of the book, but are a nice aesthetic touch
Speaking of aesthetics, Vault is dripping in steampunk tropes. Automatons, being the old timey English word for robots before the Czech coined the word robots, are all over the place. Clockwork gadgets and tech are all over the place. That clockwork cat on the front is actually Alice’s cat. There are airships and pirates. The British women are all prim and proper. The Americans are dashing rogues. Even if you just barely touch steampunk, these are all tropes you’ve seen before.
So what’s made me blast through this book in just a couple days? A slow day at work helped, but remember, tropes are just tools for the writer. The same hammer that tacks a picture nail can build a whole house. Steampunk tropes infuse every aspect of the book, but they never felt stale once. Vault ran at an invigorating pace. It is spot on and absolutely flies. Remember the Third Ward? Vault is a steampunk secret agent book. The world is going to get saved here and that’s something that involves a lot of running, shooting, explosions and occasional punching.
Harper gives us two POV characters in Vault, Alice and Gavin. I liked them both but I felt Alice was a much cooler character. She feels she’s obligated to conform to a very stuffy British society because she’s the daughter of a baron. She doesn’t really want to, as much as she keeps telling herself. Her talents are way more inline with building and fixing automatons. Alice is a woman who wants to change and struggles to accept it within herself so she can act upon it. It’s a slow play, change doesn’t come to her in any sort of sudden realization. That kind of stuff is very compelling to me even if you can see point Z from the start at point A. The journey is well written which is what matters.
And that’s the pattern throughout this book. The secret agent aspects of Vault are certainly unique, but overall I had a feeling of “the familiar done very well.” Even steampunk dabblers would probably feel this way. Vault is a kindred spirit of Boneshaker. That’s a good thing though. Boneshaker is to steampunk as Neuromancer is to cyberpunk. Nothing wrong with being influenced by the best. Even as first in a series, Vault took the time to tie up most of the loose ends. There’s just enough to throw you into the next book but no rage inducing cliffhanger. There’s a lot of potential in the lead up to Book Two. I seriously want to see this world’s China. I’ve certainly been left wanting to read more. That’s a theme for me this week.