Book Review

Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance: A Guest Review from CarrieS

D+

Title: Hot and Steamy: Tales of Steampunk Romance
Author: Jean, Martin H. Rabe, Greenberg
Publication Info: DAW Books, Inc. 2011
ISBN: 978-075640689
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book CoverThis all you need to know. Hot and Steamy:  Tales of Steampunk Romance is neither hot, nor steamy, nor romantic.  It contains short stories that work more like sketchy idea pitches than like fully realized stories, the romances are perfunctory and either depressing or unbelievable (or, in many cases, both) and worst of all the collection is boring.  I normally read one book every one to three days depending on length, content, and other commitments, and it took me almost two weeks to force myself to finish this because I. Was. Bored.

I was really excited when this anthology came out, because I love steampunk and romance, and I was curious as to how well romance would work in a short story format.  I was also intrigued by the fact that about half the authors are male, and I thought it would be interesting to compare their styles to the female authors in light of the eternal debate over whether men can write good romance (I vote yes).  Unfortunately, all the authors in this collection, regardless of gender, wrote as though they had never written, or perhaps even read, a romance novel, any kind of love story at all, or any short stories.  They had the steampunk look down all right but nothing else.  A short story has to be a complete entity.  It shouldn’t feel like a chapter lifted from a book (even when it actually is).  It certainly shouldn’t feel like the first draft of a crappy chapter from a crappy book.  These stories generally started off with labored exposition, proceeded to an action scene, and then wrapped up abruptly.  There were plenty of explosions and even a rather nice Lovecraftian monster, but the action failed to engage me because I had no reason to care about what was happening or have any belief in the endings.  I realize that having a whole romance play out in a few pages is tricky, but that’s why the author has to work within the form – set up the beginnings of a romance, for instance.  Make me believe that the two main characters like each other.  Heck, just make me believe that the characters are worth caring about as individuals.  And while you’re at it, make the plot an organic, integral thing, not something that consists of a few pages of arbitrary explosions (insert Michael Bay joke here).

Oh, and, if you are into erotica, brace yourself – despite the title, there is no sex at all and hardly even a satisfying smooch.  Even I, with my prudish inclinations that prefer a fade-to-black, was disappointed.  Why, why, why would you call a book “Hot and Steamy” if it has no sex and in fact a minimum of sexual chemistry?  What is it with the curse of the misleading titles? 

I won’t break this down by each story, because it would bore all of us including me.  However, a couple of stories deserve actual praise and saved the book from earning a D- instead of a D+.  “In the Belly of the Behemoth”, by Matt Forbeck, explored how steampunk would look on a southern plantation during the last days of the Civil War.  The unusual setting and the focus on the African American characters impressed me.  As flawed as the story was, and as sketchy as the romance was, it was at least original and very exciting.  I also truly enjoyed “For Queen and Country”, by Elizabeth A. Vaughn.  This was a more traditional Victorian Steampunk romance with no new twists, but really engaging characters and dialogue.  Semi-honorable mentions go to:

– “The Problem of Trystan”, by Maurice Broaddus, which doesn’t work at all as a short story but does contain fun characters that I’d like to see more of.

– “For the Love of Copper”, by Marc Tassin, which was a disaster as a romance, even as a tragic romance, but did contain one brief moment of actual horror that made me pay attention for a minute.  In a stronger collection it wouldn’t be noticed, but since the overall collection was so bland, anything that elicited emotion from me got extra credit.

– “Love Comes to Abyssal City”, by Tobias S. Buckell, for a futuristic take and an understanding of the limits of the short story form which allows the romance to actually work within the limits of the story.

Dishonorable mention goes to “Her Faith is Fixt”, by Robert E. Vardeman, for having such a loathsome “hero” that I didn’t finish it.  I did peek at the end and it was, also, loathsome.  I can’t tell if the author himself is violently prejudiced against people who use wheelchairs, or if it’s just the protagonist, but either way it was really painful and infuriating to sit through on many levels.  Sarcastic kudos, Mr. Vardemann, for managing to make me pissed off and bored AT THE SAME TIME. 

Normally, I worry about how to assign a letter grade.  Not this time.  Every author in this anthology writes clear sentences and knows how to use spell-check, which is more than you can say for some authors.  They all write good descriptive passages, and many of them have an interesting angle or premise in mind even though the promise of the idea isn’t realized on the page.  However, I have absolutely no compunctions about grading this book D+, because to make steampunk boring is simply unforgivable. 

On a final note, I just can’t leave you readers in the lurch like this with nothing to read, so I’d like to suggest two short stories involving romance (but not steampunk) that are effective.  First, “April in Paris”, by Ursula K. LeGuin, from her short story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  This is a tiny gem of a tale that is sparse and yet complete, and resonates with joy.  It is a wonderful comfort read and one of my all time favorites.  If you want to see true daring at work, try “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” from Ray Bradbury’s collection, The Toynbee Convector.  Warning – it’s bittersweet at best so read it at your own risk and bring tissues, but it’s worth a sad ending to see Bradbury describe an entire relationship from beginning to end in just a few deeply moving pages.  Happy Steampunk summer to you all!


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Del Dryden says:

    That gives me a big sad. Since the last two books I wrote were steampunk romance (one is contracted and one is still out on sub) I feel a certain proprietary dudgeon about this. People shouldn’t go bandying about terms like “hot and steamy” then fail to deliver. Personally I find steampunk and teh smutz go together like peanut butter and jelly. Seems like you’d have to work at it to fail at the task of finding actual steampunk romance.

  2. 2
    Cät von J says:

    I bought an anthology about Spec Ops romance…and I still didn´t finish because the short stories that I read didn´t capture me at all. Maybe I´ll give the rest a chance…one day…

    So, although the anthology here doesn´t seem worth buying, I´m curious (after I googled STEAMPUNK :) ). Can anyone suggest a good steampunk novel? Kinda like a beginner one? Thanks!

    Thanks for the review!

  3. 3
    CarrieS says:

    @Cat von J – off hand, many people love the Parasol Protectorate series.  I LOVED Iron Duke even though the hero was way too old school for me.  Iron Duke would have got an A plus review from me, with a B plus in terms of how much I, personally, liked the romance itself.  It’s the standard to which I am currently holding all Steampunk and it has spoiled me because now I’m all bummed out is a steampunk doesn’t contain a krakken.  As a non-romance genre steampunk, I reccomend the Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.  For the greatest most funnest steampunk fun you can possibly legally have, check out Girl Genius, a webcomic that is MADE OF WIN!

  4. 4
    June says:

    @Cat

    For beginners I can second the Parasol Protectorate recommendation.  I enjoyed the first book (Soulless by Gail Carringer).  Haven’t read the second one yet.

    For more of an adventure/pulp/action type story I can recommend “Vampire Empire: The Greyfriar,” which was a great read and had a nice romantic element to it (book 2 is out this fall I think).

    I’m currently reading ‘The Affinity Bridge” which was highly recommended by a friend, but I’m not far enough into it to give my insights yet!

  5. 5

    So you got steampunk’d?

    (I’m sorry I’m so sorry.  It’s a sickness.)

  6. 6
    CarrieS says:

    @Lucy – HA!  Yes, it’s true, I was steampunk’d but good.

  7. 7

    @Cat, if you want to jump into steampunk, you can always start with one of the seminal works. No romance, but it is a great work of fiction:The Difference Engine. Or hit up some Jules Verne to see the godfather of steampunk at work. =)

  8. 8
    Carin says:

    @Cat von J – Burning Up is an anthology with 4 stories.  I thought they were all good, but my very favorite, and maybe my favorite short story of all time was Meljean Brook’s story, Here There Be Monsters.  It’s in the same world as The Iron Duke, which was also recommended above.  I like them both.

  9. 9
    Flo says:

    I’ve found, lately, that the anthologies I pick up tend to be lackluster.  Yes, even my “must buy” authors.  The last one I really enjoyed was Mean Streets (urban fantasy) which introduced me to a new author.  But since then (and this was a few years ago) I really haven’t found any good anthologies that truly have well rounded stories that bring out the medium.  Instead you get authors that are new who are parroting other ideas or just giving you snippets of the world they will bring to you.  Either way, it doesn’t engage me.

    Now, steampunk or rather horror short stories… Lovecraft.  All the day.  All the night.  That man could scare the pants off anyone.  Even if they stapled the pants to their legs.

  10. 10
    Kelly L. says:

    Putting in a rec for The Native Star by MK Hobson—Old West witchy steampunk with great banter-filled romance.

  11. 11
    MarieC says:

    I love this genre and was really sad to see this review.

    There are some really great stories out there, but to make some recommendations, ‘Greyfriars’ by Susan and Clay Griffith and ‘Dreadnought’ by Cherie Priest.  If you like comics, there is a great online (and FREE!) series out there, called ‘Girl Genius’ by Phil & Kaja Foglio.

  12. 12
    Amanda says:

    It may be difficult to get a whole romance into a short story, but it can be done.

    Like the first sequence in the movie “UP”. It was short, but you got a complete story of a long relationship.

  13. 13
    Kelly S. says:

    I’m another fan of Meljean Brook’s “Here There Be Monsters” & “Iron Duke.”

    I’m about a 1/3 of the way in the book “The Girl in the Steel Corset” by Katy Cross.  It is a quick read but I stopped at the point where I thought the girl was being stupid and haven’t picked it back up.  Turns out there is a prequel, “The Strange Case of Finley Jayne” who is the Girl.  Reviews have said that the prequel gives a lot more information and depth to Finley and why she is the way she is.  I will say this book has everything within the first 25 pages or so.  Steampunk, sci fi (elements obtained from a journey to the center of the earth), ghosts, aliens, etc. just about any popular sub-genre is in it.

    Not steampunk more gothic victorian is “The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker” and related series by Leanna Renee Hieber.

  14. 14
    EbonyMcKenna says:

    Oh what a shame.

  15. 15

    At the risk of blowing my own steampunk horn, if you want hot and steamy steampunk erotica, you may want to check out Carnal Machines, edited by D.L King, and published by Cleis Press just this past April.

    (Full disclosure—I have a short story in the anthology)

  16. 16

    I’m not positive, never am anymore, but I think that red silhouette is the same as the girl in the purple dress with no soul.  Less the weapon. Don’t call me on this, cuz I am uncertain already and at a weak juncture in my life, if a juncture can be weak, as sort of in not knowing which way to turn, all directions seeming poor choices.

    I don’t like this kind of book.

  17. 17
    cbackson says:

    I also think of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age as kinda steampunky, and very excellent, but I’m a Stephenson fan.  Not everyone is.

    Third’ing (fourth-ing?  fifth-ing) The Iron Duke, which I loved beyond all reason.  I’ve been a bit let down by Brook’s other (non-steampunk) series, which has good moments but all in all doesn’t really grab me.

  18. 18

    @Cät Cindy Spencer Pape has a free Steampunk short story, PHOTOGRAPHS & PHANTOMS over at Carina Press. There’s also a full-length book, STEAM & SORCERY, in the series. I really enjoyed them both.

    I totally agree with the recommendations of Meljean Brook’s THE IRON DUKE and HERE THERE BE MONSTERS. (Did y’all hear that the mmpb of TID will have a new Mina/Rhys novella included? http://bit.ly/n1EAxl)

  19. 19
    Cät von J says:

    Thanks everyone for the recommendations! So lets see if steampunk is something for me :)

  20. 20

    LMAO @ Lucy’s comment –  you got steampunk’d. Love it!
    I totally recommend The Steamside Chronicles by Ciar Culen, or Miss Minnie And The Brass Pluggit by Sahara Kelly.

  21. 21

    I’d like to point out that Samhain Publishing put out three steampunk romance novellas within the last year. As well, they published my western steampunk romance “Wild Cards and Iron Horses” which won second place in the FF&P 2011 Prism Awards in the Fantasy catagory.

    So there are plenty of steampunk romance authors out there doing it and doing it right.

    And let me put in another vote for “Iron Duke”. Lordy, that’s a good start to an excellent series. Can’t wait for the next books!!!

  22. 22
    Carin says:

    After I posted about Here There Be Monsters and Iron Duke yesterday I was checking out Meljean Brook’s page and noticed that she’s self-published a short story in the Iron Seas world!  In a digital anthology along with 2 other authors.  The book is called Wild & Steamy.  I can’t wait to read it!

  23. 23
    Lynda says:

    Agreed, I thought that this collection was terrible!  In the Belly of the Behemouth and the Broaddus stories I thought were both very good, but everything else was trite or just badly written.
    I can’t help but feel that most of the authors felt that by saying “oh, and by the way these two people 1. lurve each other/ 2.  want to make like horizontal octopi / 3. are one male and one female so… you know” it would make it a romance.  Bah.

  24. 24
    Pam says:

    @Cat,
    I did a steampunk display at my HS library last year.  To the suggestions above, I would add H.G. Wells (another godfather of the genre), Westerfeld’s Leviathan series and Reeve’s Mortal Engines (both YA) and Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air.  None are romances, but, if you’re interested in the genre, they might be fun.  The Iron Duke was conspicuously absent from my display as It is indeed Hot and Steamy, and explicit doesn’t work in the high school library…

  25. 25
    Donna says:

    My old roommate posited once that the short story is becoming a lost art.
    And I OMG 3rd, 4th or 5th The Parasol Protectorate and the Iron Seas books. So awesome.

  26. 26
    Angel says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. I had thought at one point of picking it up for the Better Half (she really likes short story anthologies, and is a big SF/F reader, which does include steampunk). Plus, I like steampunk, so I might have likely read at least parts of it. I am steering clear of this. To be honest, a few steampunk anthologies I have picked up as of late have been pretty lackluster. I wonder why. Overall, you’d think steampunk would be a great environment to work from. Maybe the authors just get too cocky?

    I’ve heard of Carnal Machines and have it on my TBR list. Tried Leviathan, but did not like it much (I guess too “YA” for me, but that is me). Thinking of picking up The Parasol Protectorate, at least the first novel. Maybe the Better Half will like it too.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  27. 27

    Maybe the authors just get too cocky?

    Or not cocky enough?

    Sorry… I couldn’t help myself.

  28. 28
    EC Spurlock says:

    I hesitated to pick this up just because the cover sucked. Now I’m glad I left it on the shelf.

    What bothers me about this is that someone looking into Steampunk for the first time would pick this up as an intro to the genre or sampler to see if they liked it and probably end up being discouraged by it. Not good for the genuinely good Steampunk out there or for aspiring Steampunk writers like moi.

    Seconds on Girl Genius and the Leviathan series (I personally enjoy YA). Have to try Meljean Brooks now with all the good I have heard about her. I have also had Steamed by Katie MacAlister recommended to me, but while I like her books on the whole, sometimes they get a little too silly for me.

  29. 29
    CarrieS says:

    @EC Spurlock – re:  Steamed, by MacAlister, I know MMV, and lots of people loved it, but for me it was a DNF, throw across room.  I HATED it.  I’d review it, but then I’d feel honor bound to try to re-read it.  So consider it reviewed.  It had a great cover, though, there’s that…

  30. 30

    Yeah, Steamed is not a book I, personally, would recommend. While I finished it, I didn’t think it was the best Katie MacAlister I have ever read.  It’s like a C- for me.

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