September 1, 2014

Metalheads Who Read: 10 Dark Steampunk Books to Enjoy

Metalheads Who Read, Writing Runes

Since my new book, The Sunken, is going to immediately be classed as steampunk because it is set in an alternative Georgian London on the brink of industrial revolution, I thought I’d compile a list of some of my other favorite books in this sub-genre.

So what defines a book as “steampunk”? Steampunk as a genre of books, movies, games, etc, is basically science-fiction set in an industrialized 19th century – either the real one, an alternate reality, or a complete fantasy world that happens to incorporate steam technology. This technology also often comes with social norms, etiquette, colonialism and other trappings of the era, and there’s often an overarching theme about the dangers of progress and technology.

To me, a good steampunk novel will have an exceptionally well-researched and realistic world, a heavily dystopian plot, and some fascinating characters that might be ripped from your favourite Victorian novels. The mood of the work is vital – I like steampunk books to feel grimy and dirty, smoky and smoggy. Want to learn more about what steampunk is? Read GD Falksen’s page.

As you might be able to tell from this list, my taste veers more toward the dark side of steampunk fiction – the “punk” bit, if you will. While there are some wonderful lighthearted adventure stories (Soulless by Gail Carriger in the Parasol Protectorate series comes immediately to mind), I find a lot of these a bit too cheesy for my taste. Without further ado, here are my picks for 10 of the best steampunk novels:

1. Whitechapel Gods, by S. M. Peters


The first official “steampunk” book I ever read, Whitechapel Gods contains everything you could want in a dark tale of rebellion and sacrifice. In Victorian London, the Whitechapel district is a mechanized, steam-driven hell, cut off and ruled by two mysterious, mechanical gods – Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock. Some years have passed since the Great Uprising, when humans rose up to fight against the machines, but a few brave veterans of the Uprising have formed their own Resistance – and are gathering for another attack. Only this time, they have a secret weapon. There are capricious gods, steam-powered robots, even a prostitute with a heart of gold. The book can be a bit hard to read sometimes, and the style is possibly a bit derivative of authors like Meiville, but for a debut it’s an imaginative world that invokes a bleak and grubby atmosphere.

Buy Whitechapel Gods from Amazon.

2. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianne Wynne Jones


One of the first books my husband ever recommended I read back when we first started dating, Howl’s Moving Castle is a dark fairy-tale story for young adults that will definitely appeal to anyone who loves steampunk elements and a bit of black humor thrown into the mix. Young Sophie Hatter offends the Witch of the Waste and is turned into an old woman. She then has to try and find a way to change herself back. She ends up travelling all over the land in a mobile castle owned by the strange wizard Howl and powered by the fire demon Calcifer. I’m told there’s a movie too, which is quite good and has more steampunk elements than the book, but I haven’t seen it. Rich with delightful details and a heroine you can’t help but adore, Howl’s Moving Castle is one of those books you can happily return to again and again.

Buy Howl’s Moving Castle from Amazon.

3. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

the anubis gates

One of the classics of the genre, and unlike Gibson’s The Difference Engine, The Anubis Gates is not a complete slog to get through, The Anubis Gates will appeal to anyone who loved Stargate and likes their science fiction laced with heavy doses of adventure and horror. Winner of the Philip K Dick award, the plot follows an English Professor who travels back in time to 1810 to attend a lecture of an English poet. He gets stuck. There’s a murderous Egyptian God, and an evil sorcerer clown, and lots of dark and dirty London sewer action. Time travel books are often too full of plot-holes and unexplained paradoxes for my liking, but this book is superbly well-executed and a huge influence on me.

Buy The Anubis Gates from Amazon.

4. Mainspring, by Jay Lake


Lake has envisioned a clockwork solar system, where the planets move in a vast system of gears around the lamp of the Sun. It is a universe where the hand of the Creator is visible to anyone who simply looks up into the sky, and sees the track of the heavens, the wheels of the Moon, and the great Equatorial gears of the Earth itself. Mainspring is the story of a young clockmaker’s apprentice, who is visited by the Archangel Gabriel. He is told that he must take the Key Perilous and rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. It is running down, and disaster to the planet will ensue if it’s not rewound. This book is a bit more adventure story, and a bit less dark than I usually go for, but it’s fun and clever and the premise is really cool. Sadly, Jay Lake died a couple of years back. I always enjoyed his writing (I used to read any publication that included one of his short stories) so was gutted that I wouldn’t be able to read any more of his books.

Buy Mainspring (Clockwork Earth) from Amazon.

5. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest


The Boneshaker – a drill designed to mine through Alaska’s ice – went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead. Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Ezekiel Wilkes, who undertakes a secret crusade to go under the wall. Zeke’s mother, Briar, must follow him in an airship to save him. Set in alternate 1880s America, one reviewer describes it thusly “If Jules Verne and George Romero got together to rewrite American history it might go something like this.” What’s particularly good about this book is the very strong and incredibly complex main protagonist, Briar – Priest explores a lot of what it means to be a mother.

Buy Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century) from Amazon.

6. Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve

Mortal engines

My husband found the first book in the Predator Cities series in a junk shop in England, and we both read it on holiday and adored it. I know Mr. Reeves hates the term “steampunk” with the fire of a thousands suns, but … come on. London, the great Traction City, lumbers after a small town, eager to eat it up, cannibalise it for parts and take its residents as slaves to work the city’s giant engines. Resources on the Great Hunting Ground that once was Europe are so limited that mobile cities must consume one another to survive, a practice known as Municipal Darwinism. London is hunting again. In the attack, Tom Natsworthy is flung from the speeding city with a murderous scar-faced girl. They must run for their lives through the wreckage–and face a terrifying new weapon that threatens the future of the world.

Reeve is a master story-teller. The two main characters, Tom and Hester, are as remarkable as they are flawed. If the concept of Municipal Darwinism doesn’t already have you hooked, then the wonderful characters and unpredictable plot will get you on the second page.

Buy Predator Cities #1: Mortal Engines from Amazon.

7. Sun of Suns, by Karl Schroeder

sun of suns

It is the distant future. The world known as Virga is a fullerene balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter, filled with air, water, and aimlessly floating chunks of rock. The humans who live in this vast environment must build their own fusion suns and “towns” that are in the shape of enormous wood and rope wheels that are spun for gravity. Young, fit, bitter, and friendless, Hayden Griffin is a very dangerous man. He’s come to the city of Rush with one thing in mind: to take murderous revenge for the deaths of his parents.The concept is both brilliant and ludicrous, but carried off in such a convincing way that you’re completely sucked in. Schroeder doesn’t disappoint with details, and he’s clearly thought through every aspect of physics in his invented world. I haven’t read the other books in this series, but I did really love this one.

Buy Sun of Suns: Book One of Virga from Amazon.

8. Perdido Street Station, by China Meiville

perdido street station

Quickly becoming one of my favorite authors ever, Meiville is at his best in Perdido Street Station, a story of a place called Bas-Lag, a profoundly dark and weird place. The main character, Issac, is a rogue scientist, who receives a visit from a garuda (a nomadic race with human bodies, bird heads and wings). This garuda’s wings have been sawn off because he committed a crime, a very bad crime he is ashamed of. He believes Isaac can help him get his wings back. This indirectly leads to the main plot of the novel, which involves the city being terrorized by slake-moths, who are pretty horrific. There’s a lot of powerful social commentary running through the themes in this book, which is part of what draws me so intently towards Meiville’s work. You will see Perdido Street Station appear again and again on top science-fiction lists – it’s pretty incredible.

Buy Perdido Street Station from Amazon.

9. Ghosts by Gaslight: Tales of Steampunk & Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann & Nick Gevers

ghosts by gaslight

This isn’t a novel, but a collection of short stories, and actually one of the most enjoyable steampunk books I’ve ever read. Everything is a little dark, a little off-centre, and really, really spooky. This, to me, is exactly what steampunk is about. I found this at the library and enjoyed devouring a story every night before bed. I loved Marly Youmans “The Grave Reflection”, starring Nathanial Hawthorne and written in his style, and “The Iron Shroud”, by John Morrow, about a substance that can trap souls as they depart the body and giving them a form of malleable skin, effectively creating golems. But there are very, very few mediocre tales in this collection. Many of the authors have picked up on the essence of beautiful Victorian ghost stories, and infused them with contemporary vigor.

Buy Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense from Amazon.

10. The Sunken, by S. C. Green

The Sunken - S C Green

Some might debate the morality of adding my own book to this list, but I wrote the book, I wrote the list, so it seems fine to me. In this dark fantasy tale of an alternate Georgian London where dinosaurs still survive, Nicholas Thorne finds himself torn between saying the city from an army of lead-soaked monsters, and stopping his closest friend from being consumed by the very power he needs to protect the city. If you like your steampunk dark and filled with zombies, dinosaurs and religious zealots, then The Sunken is for you.

Buy The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1) from Amazon.

What are your favorite steampunk novels? Who have I missed off my list? Add yours in the comments below!

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The Sunken is being released on 12th September! You can pre-order The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1) from Amazon now. Check out an Excerpt from the book, and read the FAQ to learn about where you can purchase your copy.