16th May 2012
The Bodice Ripper: Glue Some Gears On It And Call It Steampunk
In theory, I should love steampunk. I’m obsessed with the Victorian era, I’m a sci-fi geek and I love anything related to steam engines and the Industrial Revolution. And yet somehow it leaves me cold.
I was hoping that Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series would change my mind. On paper, Alexia Tarabotti is my kind of neo-Victorian heroine. Feisty, unconventional and brilliant, she’s too old to be an ingénue and too half-Italian to be considered a proper English lady.
Oh, and she’s also a preternatural, or ‘soul-sucker’ – one of the few humans with the ability to neutralise any supernatural creature with just a touch. This is handy, as Carriger’s London is crawling with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, some of whom are a little too interested in Alexia for her own good.
The blending of steampunk and supernatural elements has the potential to be interesting – one of my favourite things about literary vampires from Bram Stoker’s Dracula onwards is seeing how they adapt to modern technology – but there’s very little conflict and it comes across as set-dressing rather than being integral to the plot.
It starts to mesh a little better in Changeless, the second book in the series, but it feels like a supernatural mystery with a few dirigibles thrown in for good measure.
It isn’t helped by the writing. I can handle a bit of anachronistic dialogue here and there – although it makes less sense in neo-Victorian historical fiction, since it isn’t radically different to the way we speak today, just more formal – but this is a mishmash of contemporary slang, Americanisms and phrases Carriger appears to have come across in Regency romances.
Since it’s an alternate history, I could be generous and assume her Victorian society hung on to social structures from earlier in the century but…I don’t want to. In the end, it reads as though she’s thrown in the steampunk elements to avoid doing any actual research. She has, to parahprase possibly one of the best YouTube videos of all time, taken the 19th Century and just glued some gears on it.
And yet they’re somehow ridiculously enjoyable once you stop taking them seriously, either as steampunk or as historical fiction. There are cross-dressing lesbian inventors, flamboyantly queer vampires and a best friend with wonderfully atrocious taste in clothing – think Charles Worth on an acid trip.
It’s also worth noting that (along with being at the very least heteroflexible) the heroine is plus-size – not that the covers give any indication of that.
For a Victorian London where vampires roam freely, Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula does it a lot better (although even that is problematic in places).
I suspect – or at least I hope – that most authors don’t employ clichés so lazily as Carriger, but sadly the series hasn’t left me with a burning desire to seek them out.