Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders

The steampunk series continues with two more installments.

This retro review is from December 22, 2013.

Review: Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders, Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., 2013.Romulus Buckle

Preston’s great strength, perhaps honed in his career as a screenwriter, is his ability to evoke and describe the physical details of a scene, its characters, land, atmosphere, and, of course, the brass fittings and leather clothes and steam engines of steampunk.

The details of this world are interesting. It is the “Snow World”, Earth about 300 hundred years after an invasion by aliens, dubbed “Martians” but they aren’t really from Mars) which left Earth with large obelisks of indestructible material and no electricity. In the ruins of Los Angeles, it has even left a permanent cloud of poison gas. Man has reverted to small clans built around professions: (the Crankshafts, merchants that Captain Romulus Buckle belongs to; the Alchemists, engineers of steam powered robots and other things; the Imperials who built the main character of the story, the airship Pneumatic Zeppelin.

And, while it’s still ludicrous, Preston’s steampunk technology is less ludicrous than that of a lot of other steampunk stories. This is something of a naval adventure with detailed descriptions of the airship and, when necessary, its repair. Essentially, the plot involves the rescue of Crankshaft leader Balthazar from imprisonment in the City of Founders, a clan living under the ruins of Los Angeles. Continue reading

The Steampunk of Michael Coorlim


As I’ve said before (and repeat below), steampunk is a rather decadent speculative genre: not really plausible alternate history, no plausible technological speculation, and often sort of a retro nostalgia for Victorian fashions and technologic.

Still, I like some of it.

Besides the steampunk work of Mark Hodder, I’m fond of the self-published steampunk Galvanic Century by Michael Coorlim.

I was introduced to his work via a review copy from the author of “And They Called Her Spider” and went on to buy most of the rest though (as will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog) not current with his Galvanic Century work.

Besides his characterization, I like that his world closely echoes the world right before World War One.

This is not one of my regular retro reviews. Coorlim has been shuffling the editions of his steampunk and the ones I reviewed don’t necessarily exist, so I’ll list the stories I’ve read and the current editions they appear in.

The reviews of been stitched together like a Frankenstein monster — rather appropriate because he sort of puts in an appearance in one of these stories.

Continue reading

Lord Kelvin’s Machine

The steampunk series continues.

Raw Feed (2002): Lord Kelvin’s Machine, James P. Blaylock, 1992.Lord Kelvin's Machine

I liked this sequel to Blaylock’s Homunculus better than that novel. (The Lord Kelvin of the title is, in fact, the famous physicist Lord Kelvin who makes an appearance as a character.)

Villains Ignacio Narbondo and Willis Pule are back from the first novel. Pule is now insane and forms a grotesque pair with his mother. The novel has an interesting structure and gets better as it goes along.

The opening chapter sets up Langdon St. Ives’ obsession with avenging himself on Narbondo for the death of St. Ives’ wife and his quest to resurrect her via time travel. (The Holmesian flavor of this novel is even stronger than the one in Homunculus. Narbondo is sort of a Moriarty figure to St. Ives and Parsons, the rather stuffy, socially connected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences who always keeps St. Ives out of it, comes off rather like Holmes’ Scotland Yard rival, LeStrande.) The opening third of the book involves St. Ives foiling a blackmail plot by Narbondo to pull a comet into the Earth via a powerful supermagnet. Blaylock provides an interesting story of how Narbondo is tracked down and how he ends up supposedly drowned in a frigid Nowegian lake. However, Blaylock never really explains why the opening chapter of Part I necessitates St. Ives being in Peru and how Narbondo’s earthquake generating scheme worked. The story follows St. Ives and ever competent servant Hasbro.

However, the novel’s story and humor really picks up with Part II which is narrated by a minor character from Homunculus, Jack Owlesby. Jack’s a pretty normal guy who chides himself for his fondness for good food and drink and naps and his wife and knows he’s not particular courageous. However, he’s competent and courageous enough to foil a renegade ichthyologist and his dangerous sidekick from Wyoming in their scheme to use the stolen supermagnet to down metal-bottomed ships and extort money from the Crown. He also has a run in with the weird Pules. Continue reading


The steampunk series continues because I can’t seem to get to writing any new stuff lately.

Raw Feed (2002): Homunculus, James P. Blaylock, 1986.Homunculus

I can see, after reading this book, why Tim Powers says many of the funny bits of his books are just notes from his talks with his friend Blaylock.

Blaylock is funny. He gives many of his characters endearing quirks. Captain Powers, no doubt named for Tim Powers who, in his The Anubis Gates, had a ship named the Blaylock, has a fondness for objects which double as flasks, including his peg leg. His friend William Keeble, a toymaker, despises the Utilitarian notions of philosopher Jeremy Benthem, in marked contrast to evil industrialist Drake, symbol of rapacious practicality. Langdon St. Ives is a brilliant scientist with a rocket ship in his silo. However, he can’t get into the Royal Academy of Sciences and likes the whimsy of poetry over the stiff requirements of science. Hasbro is his unflappable, practical gentleman’s gentleman. Bill Kraken is a lowborn man of a criminal past who now helps the Trismegistus Club, and he is sort of self-educated though his readings in science and philosophy, including a work by William Ashbless which stops a bullet from killing him, has left him with some strange notions. Willis Pule is a hapless, acne plagued villain who harbors constant fantasies of revenge and destruction against those who offend his dignity though none of his plans come out right. Hunchback Ignacio Narbondo is his boss. Shiloh the New Messiah is the putative son of Joanna Southcote, a real religious figure of the late 18th and early 19th century who, when she died, claimed she was pregnant with Shiloh who would rule nations with a rod of iron. (The modern Panacea Society, according to the Fortean Times, continues her teachings.)

I liked some of the plot elements of this novel: stealing carps from a public aquarium to use their glands in immortality and reanimation experiments; reanimating the dead and using them as followers for Shiloh, the attempted reanimation of Joanna Southcote’s skeleton, feeding the resurrected dead with literal blood pudding, Maxwell’s Demon turning out not to be an analogy but a literal being — in this case the stranded alien homunculus. Continue reading

Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII

I have several volumes of this series, but this is the only one I’ve read — probably because a review was expected since I got it from the publisher via LibraryThing.

A retro review from February 16, 2013.

Review: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII, ed. K. D. Wentworth, 2012.Writers of the Future

Don’t think of this as a collection of amateur stories. These stories are as proficient as those you will find in any anthology, more than many I’d say. Many of these stories are not even the first publication of their authors.

And don’t think of this as some sort of talent-spotting exercise, a dutiful survey to see who might be the subject of “buzz” in the future. As with past winners, some of these authors will go on to distinguished careers. Others will fade away.

There is something here for most tastes in the fantastic: fantasy, surrealism, a bit of steampunk, and military and straight science fiction.

Some of that science fiction is conceptually inventive. If it isn’t entirely groundbreaking, it at least looks at some old ideas in a new way. Three stories in this category were my favorites.

Actually, my favorite, Gerald Warfield’s “The Poly Islands“, may do something completely new in its setting – the famed island of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Here, it’s populated by criminal gangs, those on the run from those gangs like protagonist Liyang, and political refugees. Add in the mysterious nature of the Crab, leader of the Poly Island community, some intrigue, and the well-worked out details of living on an unstable platform of plastic garbage, and you have a winning story marred only a tiny bit by a somewhat schmaltzy ending. Continue reading

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

A retro review from July 8, 2012 …

Review: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Mark Hodder, 2011.Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

I’ll tread lightly in describing this book so as not to spoil Hodder’s grotesque, sometimes humorous, mix of messed up history, altered Victorian notables, occultism, and marvels of steam-powered and genetic engineering. I will say there are plenty of marvels apart from those listed in the book’s description.

If you’re new to Hodder, you can jump into the series with this book. In fact, the only flaw in the book is Hodder’s courtesy in getting the reader unfamiliar with the preceding volume, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, up to speed slows things a bit. Even if you haven’t read the third and last volume in the series (which I have), it’s clear this is an important link in the story with the conclusion foreshadowing what is to come in the third book. Again, Hodder provides an afterword covering most of the violence he’s done to our nineteenth century timeline.

I didn’t like this book quite as well as its predecessor just because I didn’t find the titular clockwork man and the controversy (taken from actual history) of the Tichborne claimant quite as interesting as the Spring Heeled Jack legend, but, if you love complicated stories with lots of interesting asides, this is the book for you.

And the cover is pretty snazzy on this one too.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/index

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

A retro review from May 27, 2012 …

Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder, 2010.Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

“With blood and with iron, shall a nation be moulded.” And what blood and what iron!

Hodder doesn’t exactly give us a steampunk world. There are too many biological grotesqueries like swans big enough to carry men into deepest Africa, huge dray horses, greyhounds who deliver messages to every memorized address in London, and parakeets who deliver voice messages – liberally laced with insults and profanity. Mendel’s work, in this world, was not “lost” and men like Darwin and Francis Galton have plenty of ideas about using the new science. This is no Victorian Age of freakish steam powered machines (though there are plenty, here). Indeed, Hodder gets rid of Queen Victoria in 1840.

Technically, that sort of makes this an alternate history, but Hodder cheerfully does such violence to history and the many historical personages he has here – not to mention throwing in werewolves and the bizarre legend of Spring Heeled Jack – that it feels very different.

Explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne, author of the above quote, make a good duo of investigators for King Albert. Swinburne, with his small stature and masochistic tendencies, provides a lot of comic relief. Burton, after an early encounter with Spring Heeled Jack, realizes that his life could take an alternate path and that provides a quite satisfying scene towards the end of the book. Continue reading


Another retro review, this from September 25, 2010.

Retro Review: Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat, 2010.Aurorarama

In the year 1908, the city of New Venice is threatened by unrest. Hardly unique in a time when preachers of anarchy and committed revolutionaries roamed about the Western world. The forces of the status quo are particularly interested in who wrote a subversive tract called A Blast on the Barren Land, or The Standard of True Community Advanc’d, an accusation that this utopian community of the Arctic (seemingly around Greenland) has betrayed its principles. The genially sinister and nattily dressed secret police, the Gentlemen of the Night, think dissolute literature professor Gabriel d’Allier knows who wrote the book and pressure him into providing evidence it is his friend Brentford Orsini. The latter is highly placed in the Arctic Administration, manages the Greenhouse important to the city, and is also interested in Inuit-New Venice relationships.

Gabriel and Brentford are the viewpoint characters, and we follow them to meetings with conspiracies of garbagemen, magicians who may just work real magic, anarchists and suffragettes, and try to discover the meaning of a message from Brentford’s dead lover urging him towards a rendezvous at the North Pole. And, especially, we see their romances play out – Gabriel with a Stella, a wild, tattooed magician’s assistant and Brentford with fiance Sybil. Continue reading


Usual drill. I’m working on other stuff. You get a retro review.

This one is from June 18, 2010.

Review: Changeless, Gail Carriger, 2010.Changeless

Newlyweds often have many negotiations and arrangements to work out in their married lives. That holds true even when one is an aristocratic werewolf and the other a special advisor to Queen Victoria. So, when Lord Woolsey forgets to tell wife Alexia about the werewolf regiment that will be camping out on the grounds of their estate and then heads off to Scotland, she is none too happy. Especially, since she has also been charged by the Queen with figuring out why werewolves and vampires throughout London are reverting to fragile human form. Alexia being Alexia, literally soulless practicality and pragmatism, she sets off to set things right with or without her husband’s help.

While still a mixture of romance, humor, mystery, adventure, and steampunk gadgetry that has something for everyone, this wasn’t quite as entertaining as the first novel, Soulless. And, being the middle book of a trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger. The revelation precipitating the cliffhanger is entirely predictable almost from the beginning if not the problems stemming from it.

Continue reading

The Lost Airship

Lost AirshipAnother retro review, this time from November 20, 2011.

This is a self-published work I got through the author on LibraryThing.

It’s steampunk, and, while I’ve enjoyed steampunk works, there is something artistically decadent about the subgenre. Most of the steampunk I’ve read fails as plausible alternate history. The technology is often knowingly absurd unlike some of the tech in dated science fiction. And they often aren’t as imaginative as most fantasy seems to be (at least by reading reviews and book covers — I read little fantasy apart from Tim Powers and Michael Moorcock).

Still decadent can be fun though I wasn’t all that excited by this book.

You’re on your own with a purchasing link since Lewis’ Amazon page doesn’t list this title.

Review: The Lost Airship, Joseph Robert Lewis, 2011.

Normally, I’m not much for historical fantasy, but the promise of an airship and a polar expedition was enough for me to invest the time in reading this novella.

This novel does have a bit of a steampunk feel to it with the airship and national and imperial intrigues. The technology is, as the author says in his introductory note, sort of a combination of Renaissance and Industrial Age. With the exception of one bit of magic, it’s an alternate history, but not one where the deviation from our timeline is in man’s social history but in the physical history of the Earth rather like the premises behind Harry Harrison’s Eden trilogy or Harry Turtledove’s A Different Flesh. Here, the last ice age simply never went away in northern Europe, and the history of the world was altered. Continue reading