As a subgenre, steampunk is not new, but it has remained a fairly niche market in YA. However, there are a number of steampunk-ish novels featuring feisty females coming down the road, which makes me think that this speculative genre is poised to take over mainstream YA in a big way.
The Mary Quinn mysteries by Y.S. Lee seem to be the first to really popularize the Victorian female heroine. These are historical mysteries and there is nothing really steampunk about them in the traditional sense, unless you consider the very premise (young female orphans trained to be elite spies) speculative. These witty, well-written mysteries are drenched in historical details and feature an engaging and capable heroine. A good gateway drug to more potent steampunk fare.
Masque of The Red Death (Bethany Griffin) is more traditional steampunk. A lush and addictive retelling of an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, Griffin creates a crumbling city reminscent of New Orleans that is divided into the masked elite and the decrepit poor. Araby, the daughter of a valuable scientist and member of the elite, is drawn to the dark, seedy debauchery clubs, seeking to forget the pain of her twin brother’s loss. These midnight trips lead her to two very different men, from different sides of the tracks, who open her eyes to both the reality of the poor and a dangerous rebellion. This is a world of plague, masked balls, airships, and glamour. I am DYING to read the sequel, Dance of the Red Death.
The Friday Society (Adrienne Kress) is due out this fall from and promises to capture the smart-alecky, butt-kicking spirit of the author’s middle grade novels Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate but Kress has graduated to a YA audience. This novel features three very different heroines who are assistants to powerful men (a magician, a member of parliament, and a martial arts guru) and band together to solve a mystery after a murder at a ball.
Like Masque of the Red Death, Megan Shepherd’s twisted and fascinating The Mad Man’s Daughter (HarperCollins 2013) is a re-telling, this time of the creepy Island of Doctor Moreau. Juliet is the daughter of disgraced Dr. Moreau, who disappeared and was presumed dead, leaving her destitute after his mysterious work was brought into question. When she discovers that her father is still alive, conducting his strange experiments on a remote island in the pacific, she sets across the ocean to be with him, never expecting the horrors that await her. Victorian London? Check. Damsel in distress who must learn to defend herself? Check. Supernatural or speculative element? Check. Odd science/clockwork? Check.
So why all the interest in feisty Victorian ladies? I suspect this is a response to all the dystopian fiction out there. Kick-ass female heroines are definitely en vogue and rather than imagine dystopian futures, these authors have re-invented the past. Class and hierarchy are major issues in both dystopian fiction and in this particular flavour of steampunk. The Victorian era was a rather bleak period for women, and there is something satisfying and exhilarating to revisit this period and give voice and action to the women who were so downtrodden by the era. I’m not anti-Austen, but even her most proactive and formidable female characters are undone (or saved) by a man.
I for one am enjoying this Ladies of Steampunk trend. I love a good costume drama, and a costume drama in which the female lead kicks ass in petticoats? Even better.