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Steampunk Heroines: Prudence by Gail Carriger and Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

18 Mar

Ed. Note: This is the 100th post to the Hoboken Library’s Staff Picks blog! A million thanks to our readers! 🙂

The Victorian Era is one often associated with women being the angels of the households concerned primarily with raising children and staying home, while men were off having adventures.  Steampunk stories often rewrite history and give women a more starring role than they would have often had at that time.  Two steampunk novels Prudence by Gail Carriger and Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear both feature strong women characters written by two terrific female Speculative Fiction Authors.

Prudence by Gail Carriger


Image via Amazon

Prudence is the first in Gail Carriger’s Custard Protocol series, a follow-up to her Parasol Protectorate series of books.  All of Carriger’s novels are set in an alternate British Empire where werewolves, vampires, and ghosts exist in addition to airships and other steam powered contraptions.  If you like to avoid spoilers be aware that it is difficult to discuss or read this series without revealing a few things that happen in the earlier books.  You can read my blog post about her earlier series here.  Rue (short for Prudence) has the ability to take on other supernatural beings’ powers while turning them into regular mortals (though this eventually wears out as she gets a certain distance from them).  Both her birth parents and adoptive father are well-off so Rue has led a pampered life.  The first half of Prudence sets up the series with Rue gathering a steamship crew in London for what she thinks is a mission to India involving a rare new form of tea.  Many of the crew includes the children of characters from the Parasol Protectorate series.  If you haven’t read the previous books this works to catch you up on things, but it is also of interest to those who are familiar with Carriger’s other books to see what has happened to some of those characters over the twenty years that have elapsed since Timeless.  Prudence takes a whimsical look at Victorian manners and is a fairly light read though it does hint at some of the historic issues of colonialism.  Rue proves herself to be a strong and competent leader as both a steamship captain and working as an ambassador to come up with a solution to a tricky political situation involving the supernatural community in India.  I appreciated that Carriger included some of the mythic creatures of India in Prudence that many readers in this country might not be as familiar with.  There are a few hints of romance, but I was unsure and intrigued to find out who Rue might wind up falling for by the end of the series.  With Prudence, Gail Carriger continues to be my favorite steampunk author.  I can’t wait to hear from her in person for the first time at the Steampunk World’s Fair happening in New Jersey this May.  In the fictional world, I’m looking forward to seeing in the next novel where this new crew of adventures chooses to float.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memery unlike Rue does not come from a privileged background, but she has just as much spunk and spirit.  The book’s title is a misspelling of her name, which is very appropriate since Karen is very memorable.  Karen Memory is set in Rapid City, a fictional amalgamation of Pacific Northwest Cities like Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle where airships fly through the air and mechanicals are used for everyday tasks like cooking.  Karen’s father trained horses and was accidentally killed while working with one, leaving Karen an orphan.  Until she can save up the money for her own stable, she finds a position at Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle at the Hôtel Mon Cherie, which is a nice way of saying brothel. Despite the nature of her and the other women’s work Karen Memory avoids describing their activities directly and the focus is more on their sense of sisterly comradery and general living conditions than their occupation.  Karen along with the other women of Hôtel Mon Cherie offer shelter to a women escaping from Peter Bantle who holds her indenture, which leads him to seek revenge all the while a murderer reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper is plaguing the streets.  It is much bleaker and less comedic in tone than Prudence and felt so well researched and atmospheric that if it were not for an occasional steam-powered device, I might have felt like I was reading a historical novel.  The action sequences at the end of Karen Memory would make a great movie, but there is also a sweet blossoming romance at the story’s heart.  I had been hearing many good things about Bear and after this novel, I definitely plan to seek out more of her work.

-Written by Aimee Harris, Head of Reference

Supernatural Steampunk: Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate and Liesel Schwarz’s The Chronicles of Light and Shadow

15 May

Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Typical steampunk fiction is set in alternative Victorian or Edwardian era settings, often England or the Wild West of America with the distinctive feature of having steam-based technology not found in our own past. Modern writers often look to works of early science fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne for inspiration.

Beyond fiction and movies there are now steampunk games such as visually stunning Bioshock Infinite; steampunk bands such as my personal favorite, Abney Park; and even steampunk conventions such as the Steampunk World’s Fair, which is taking place this May in NJ. At the conventions, people dress in steampunk-inspired fashions (think corsets and top hats with gears and goggles).

As an urban fantasy fan, steampunk stories that I find particularly enjoyable are those that incorporate supernatural elements. For this post I will be discussing one of my favorites, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, and Liesel Schwarz’s just published A Conspiracy of Alchemists, first in The Chronicles of Light and Shadow.

I discovered The Parasol Protectorate when one of our library patrons requested the third book in the series. I was intrigued by the description of homicidal mechanical ladybugs and pesto as a vampire deterrent. I quickly devoured the first three books in the series, Soulless; Changeless; and Blameless, and encouraged friends and family members to do the same.


Alexia Tarabotti, the protagonist of the series, is a “preternatural” whose touch counteracts the supernatural. Her touch causes vampires to lose their fangs and changes werewolves back to their human shape.

One book’s title comes from the fact that she is “soulless”, versus those who are able to survive the transformation into vampires and werewolves, which have excess amounts of “soul”.

Alexia, though only 25, is considered a spinster whose feisty ways embarrass her family and whose ability to neutralize their powers causes many of the supernatural to look less than fondly on her.

Luckily she has the assistance of some wonderful supporting characters including the steampunk inventor Madame Lefoux; loyal and kind, but fashion challenged, Ivy Hisselpenny; and vampire Lord Akeldama (who reminds me of the flamboyantly fabulous Prince Poppycock who you may have seen on America’s Got Talent).

There is a love interest in the form of the handsome werewolf Lord Maccon. Although Soulless has enough romance to appeal to those looking for it, readers who are not as enamored with the genre will not be off put by its inclusion.

You can borrow the paperbacks and audiobooks from BCCLS libraries. Click here to the entries in the catalog for these items. Some of the books are even available for download from eLibraryNJ.  For fans of graphic novels you can borrow Soulless in Manga format.

The series ended after the fifth book, Timeless. The positive of this is that it does not drag on and on without a conclusion like some series do past where a suitable conclusion would be for the characters involved. (I’m thinking particularly of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series). The negative is that you may still want more.

Although Carriger has ended this series, she has begun another series set in the same steampunk universe. Her first book for young adults, Etiquette & Espionage came out in February, and the second book in the Finishing School series will be out in November.


The books take place slightly earlier than the Parasol Protectorate and include some of the minor characters from her other books. Although these books are marketed towards teens and the other books are labeled as adult, both teens and adults will enjoy both series.

Carriger also has a plan for another adult series in the future which she describes on her blog, “My intention with the Parasol Protectorate Abroad books is to explore the wider ramifications of my Steampunk British Empire, not just how technology has altered but how vampires and werewolves have evolved differently in other parts of the world.”

Since Gail Carriger (the pen name of Tofa Borregaard) has degrees in anthropology and archeology I think her writing on this topic should be intriguing. Stop by Carriger’s page for more about her writing. Just be careful to avoid spoilers if you haven’t read all the books yet.

I had seen a review of Liesel Schwarz debut novel A Conspiracy of Alchemists that compared her work to Gail Carriger’s so I was curious to sample it.


The books certainly at the cover level look similar with a sepia-toned historic scene with a dirigible, a Victorian styled model and a contrasting, brightly colored title, but I found the tone and treatment of the supernatural and steampunk differed in the work. The world A Conspiracy of Alchemists sets up has a friction between science and magic.

Elle Chance herself is at the center of this divide. Although she wants nothing more than to be an airship pilot, she cannot avoid the legacy of her mother from whom she inherited supernatural abilities that she only learns about as the book progresses. I think this allows the showcasing of the inventions in an interesting way that avoids the feeling of just being tacked into a Victorian setting as sometimes happens with the genre.

The steampunk seemed very believable and I felt that Schwarz had really thought out how all of her contraptions worked. On the other had I felt some of the supernatural elements could have been better developed and I would have liked a bit more description of the setting.

I did like the inclusion of the perspective of an absinthe fairy, Adele, who stows away in a diamond bracelet Elle is wearing and whose point of view is interspersed between third person narrations of Elle’s story. I hope that their friendship and Adele’s character are further developed in future novels in the series.

Overall I preferred Carriger’s work over Schwarz’s, since it has more humor and the romantic scenes are more reigned in and have less of a period romance novel feel, but that is partially a personal preference.

I am looking forward to reading A Clockwork Heart, the next Chronicle of Light and Shadow which is scheduled to come out in August. I am hoping that Schwarz’s second work builds on the interesting dynamic she has setup between tech and magic and may add depth to her world.

A Conspiracy of Alchemists is available from the Hoboken Public Library in the new book section. You can learn more about Schwarz and her writing on her webpage.

So put on some goggles, enjoy a glass of absinthe, and check out a steampunk novel today!

– Written by Aimee Harris, Head of Reference

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