The Next Big Thing: Steampunk

YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.

by flickr user Tryndakai

There are still many people who aren’t familiar with the term steampunk, but when you describe a book with steampunk elements in it they understand. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy and usually contains elements of alternate history, the paranormal, and romance. The covers or illustrations often depict clockwork gears, goggles, steam engines representing the Victorian era, and dirigibles or other flying machines. Traditionally, steampunk novels are set mainly during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in London, or in the American Wild West, but there are many exceptions such as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, which is set in an alternate World War I in Europe.

Coincidentally, as I’m writing this, I’m watching Steamboy, the animated Japanese 2004 steampunk film that incorporates all the elements found in the best steampunk fiction. I just missed posting this last week during book publisher  Tor’s 4th annual Steampunk Week. Tor had lots of great posts, articles, short stories, and sweepstake offers on its website.

Steampunk isn’t new, but there’s been a big increase in steampunk books written for teens in the past several years and more written by women. I noticed the resurgence of steampunk books written specifically for teens started with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series (Leviathan, Goliath, and  Behemoth). Philip Reeve had already written his Mortal Engines series and his more recent books Fever Crumb and A Web Of Air (Larklight is published for younger readers). Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series books are being read by teens because her novels have both adult and teen characters but are published as adult. Gail Carriger’s book Soulless and others in the Parasol Protectorate steampunk paranormal romance series are adult.

The bad economy has led to an increase in DIY books being published, and steampunk embraces that DIY spirit, too.

There seem to be a lot more steampunk books as well as short story collections being published specifically for teens by female authors with a strong emphasis on romance within the steampunk genre.

The first major collection of steampunk tales for teens came out a year ago. Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, is a weighty, handsomely-bound collection of stories by noted female and male authors such as Cassandra Clare, Delia Sherman, M.T Anderson, Cory Doctorow, Garth Nix and Holly Black, among others, that feature reinterpretations of the basic accoutrements people expect to find in steampunk stories. These stories include mad inventors, child mechanics, steampunk fairies and many more, set in Ancient Rome, future Australia, alternate California, and other places — everywhere except Victorian London.

Other examples of steampunk titles include:

  • Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances, edited by Trisha Telep
    This collection of short stories by 12 female authors (including Ann Aguirre, Tessa Gratton, Caitlin Kittredge, Tiffany Trent, and Kiersten White) and one male author (Michael Scott) promises “true love awaits those brave enough to seek it, piece by spring-loaded, electromagnetic super-charged piece.”
  • The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent
    Steampunk set in Victorian-era New London where science and logic reign supreme and the citizens praise Saint Darwin and Saint Newton. Only Unnaturals have magic, but magic and witchcraft are considered heretical. Vespa is shocked to realize she’s the last surviving witch in New London.”The Emperor’s Man” in the Corsets and Clockwork anthology is a prequel to this novel, and it makes more sense if you read it first.
  • Innocent Darkness: The Aether Chronicles, Book 1 by Suzanne Lazear
    Author’s debut, set in an alternate 1901 California, featuring heroine Noli, who’s sent to a reform school after taking a flying car out for a joy ride. An innocent wish results in her ending up in the Realm of Faerie, where she finds herself a pawn in this Otherworld’s survival.
  • The Steampunk Chronicles series by Kady Cross
    The Strange Case of Finley Jayne is the novella prequel to The Girl in the Steel Corset. In The Girl in the Steel Corset, Finley, who has a beastly alter ego inside of her, joins Duke Griffin’s army of misfits to help stop the Machinist, the criminal behind a series of automaton crimes, from carrying out a plan to kill Queen Victoria during the Jubilee. In The Girl in the Clockwork Collar, sixteen-year-old Finley Jayne and her “straynge band of mysfits” have journeyed from London to America to rescue their friend Jasper, hauled off by bounty hunters. But Jasper is in the clutches of a devious former friend demanding a trade-the dangerous device Jasper stole from him … for the life of the girl Jasper loves.
  • Planesrunner (Everness, book 1) by Ian McDonald and Be My Enemy (Everness, book 2)
    Science fiction adult author Ian McDonald’s first YA series features 14-year-old Everett, whose father has discovered that parallel worlds exist. After his father is kidnapped, Everett searches for his father on E3, an electric steampunk parallel world with the help of the adopted daughter of a female airship captain.
  • Clockwork Sky, Vol. 1 by Madeleine Rosca
    This is te first volume in a manga series set in Victorian London in 1895, where robots have replaced the hired help. Sally, a mischievous 12-year-old, and Sky, a law enforcement steambot, discover that her industrial designer uncle is using live children as spare parts in their steambot production. You may know this Australian author/illustrator from her Hollow Fields series, which is also steampunk.
  • The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry
    When Lena turns 18, she leaves her mother and grandmother in the city to travel by steam train to search for her father, who has disappeared into the northern wilderness called the Scree. The Scree is said to be inhabited by people called Peculiars with unusual characteristics and those with “unnatural talents.” She suspects she’s half Peculiar because she has unusually large feet and hands with extra knuckles in each finger. She meets a wealthy man who has invented a dirigible.
  • The Iron Thorn (Iron Codex series, book 1) and Nightmare Garden (Iron Codex, book 2) by Caitlin Kittredge
    In an alternate, Victorian-flavored America tightly controlled by Proctors and driven by the Engine, an underground power source, a necrovirus is blamed for the city’s epidemic of madness, the strange creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical. Aoife Grayson’s family is unique: every one of them,  including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, have gone mad on their 16th birthday — and Aoife’s 16th birthday is fast approaching.

As Carla Land mentioned in her blog post about genre blending in YA lit, steampunk books, like many other books currently being written for teens, really are a blend of genres that make them appealing to a wide variety of readers. If you haven’t read any steampunk, now is the perfect time to try it!

— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater