This 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!