The best books that chart the evolution of Steampunk

Why am I passionate about this?

I love Steampunk because it combines history and imagination. My academic studies were in history, and I love exploring the multitude of ways humans have navigated the big events as well as how they lived their ordinary lives in circumstances very different from our own. The world of the imagination has been my joy ever since I first stepped into Narnia. So bringing history and imagination together is blissful for me, and Steampunk is the epitome of this creative mashup. That said, I also love Steampunk because it lets me dress up in some sensational clothes, including my top hat and the early 20th century tails I bought in a flea market in Paris.

I wrote...

Blaze of Glory (The Laws of Magic Book 1)

By Michael Pryor,

Book cover of Blaze of Glory (The Laws of Magic Book 1)

What is my book about?

Best friends Aubrey and George begin their magical high jinks in this first book of the Laws of Magic series.

At a weekend shooting party at Prince Albert's country estate, Aubrey and George find themselves in a hotbed of intrigue and politics. Together they discover a golem, a magical creature built to perform one task—to kill Prince Albert. Aubrey and George are hailed as heroes for foiling the attempt on the prince's life—but who sent the golem, and why? Aubrey is far too curious to let the authorities handle this one, and he and George start an investigation of their own to get to the bottom of the royal assassination attempt.

It’s a historical/fantasy/political/adventure/comedy/romance  - something for everyone!

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Michael Pryor Why did I love this book?

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! is an outlier, if you like. I call it ‘proto-Steampunk’ as it was published before the term was coined in the early 1980s. Regardless, it could be a template for Steampunk when it arrived. In some ways, it’s an alternate history, and it has steam-powered contraptions, big engineering projects, a Victorian tone that still incorporates our modern gaze, cameo appearances by real historical figures, and a rip-roaring narrative. Its rollicking diction is uplifting, and it mirrors the gorgeous stiff upper lip tone of much Victorian fiction to heart-warming effect. It plays with the manners, morals, and decorum of the times to create a world that isn’t the nineteenth century as it was, but as it should have been. The edition I have, purchased many years ago, has a foreword by the notoriously curmudgeonly Auberon Waugh where he admits that he ‘cried like a baby at the wedding between the beautiful, good Iris and brave Captain Washington’ which is a thoroughly splendid outcome for all.

A bonus for me in this book is the appearance of the descendant of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of my personal historical heroes, a visionary of the sort we sorely need these days.

By Harry Harrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An early classic of steampunk and neo-Victoriana, Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The time is the 1970s―sort of. The place is Earth―in a way. The project: build a tunnel over four thousand miles in length, intended to sustain a pressure of one thousand atmospheres while accommodating cargo and passengers traveling in excess of a thousand miles per hour. The Transatlantic Tunnel will be the greatest engineering feat in the history of the British Empire, a structure worthy of Her Majesty’s Empire in this, the eighth decade of the twentieth century.

If the project is a success, the credit will…

Book cover of The Anubis Gates

Michael Pryor Why did I love this book?

In the early 1980s Steampunk truly began when a trio of like-minded writers in California formed a loose affinity group, deliberately setting out to write in a mode that would capture some of the feel of Verne and Wells. Good friends K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers produced Morlock Night (Jeter), The Anubis Gates (Powers), and The Digging Leviathan (Blaylock). These were hugely influential works in establishing Steampunk as a legitimate sub-genre. And the name? At the time Jeter wrote to Locus, the Science Fiction magazine: "Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock, and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks”, perhaps..."

I picked up a copy of The Anubis Gates not long after its publication, as I was intrigued by its blurb which promised wonders – and I wasn’t disappointed. Beginning as a time travel story, we’re plunged into a darkly atmospheric London, grimily Dickensian with a cast of grotesques including body-swapping werewolves, deathless magicians, beggar kings, and evil clowns. Throw in some ancient Egyptian magic, Romany lore, a breathless plot and it’s a heady concoction. I was enthralled when I first read it and became a lifelong Tim Powers fan, and it truly began my search for more Steampunk.

By Tim Powers,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Anubis Gates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brendan Doyle is a twentieth-century English professor who travels back to 1810 London to attend a lecture given by English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is a London filled with deformed clowns, organised beggar societies, insane homunculi and magic.

When he is kidnapped by gypsies and consequently misses his return trip to 1983, the mild-mannered Doyle is forced to become a street-smart con man, escape artist, and swordsman in order to survive in the dark and treacherous London underworld. He defies bullets, black magic, murderous beggars, freezing waters, imprisonment in mutant-infested dungeons, poisoning, and even a plunge back to…

Book cover of The Difference Engine

Michael Pryor Why did I love this book?

1990 saw the release of The Difference Engine when cyberpunk originator William Gibson teamed up with Bruce Sheffield. This book set the Steampunk template for using historical figures, giving the historical events a tweak, and then seeing where the narrative goes. The timeline twist they posit was that in the 1820s, Charles Babbage manages to complete his Difference Engine, the forerunner of modern computers, and thus unleashes a technological revolution in the Victorian era. It’s important for the way it probes the social consequences of this upheaval, particularly the clashes with Victorian sensibilities.

I was a red hot William Gibson fan after reading Neuromancer, the seminal cyberpunk novel and I had a fanboy moment in meeting him at a book signing not long after the release of The Difference Engine, where, quite typically, all the thoughtful and considered comments I’d prepared about his themes and concerns went out of my head and all I managed to blurt was ‘I love your work!’ He smiled benignly and signed my book with elan. I think that sort of thing had happened to him before.

By William Gibson, Bruce Sterling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Difference Engine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1855, London swelters in a poisonous heatwave. The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time and the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. However, there is a conspiracy afoot, linking Britain with the France of Louis Napoleon and the Manhattan commune of Karl Marx.

Book cover of The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Michael Pryor Why did I love this book?

Neal Stephenson released The Diamond Age in 1992 and along with The Difference Engine and Kim Newman’s memorable Anno Dracula (Count Dracula marries Queen Victoria) it picked up the baton of Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock and kicked off what I call the Second Wave of Steampunk The Diamond Age projects Steampunk into the future in a classic spec fic ‘What if this goes on?’ scenario, with the neo-Victorians managing a world where nanotechnology is ubiquitous.

Stephenson is another of my favourite authors and this excursion into Steampunk territory is full of his usual mix of erudition, wit, mindboggling concepts, and a rampaging narrative. Superb stuff, and it set the standard for Steampunk not just as a confection, but capable of interrogating serious ideas.

By Neal Stephenson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Diamond Age as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The future is small. The future is nano . . .

And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell - an orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nanotechnology?

Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.

And it isn't Nell's. It was stolen. And now…

Book cover of Soulless

Michael Pryor Why did I love this book?

A breathless comedy of manners and morals with a protagonist without a soul trying to navigate romance in a world that closely parallels our Victorian era but with intriguing differences, such as vampires and werewolves being a customary part of society? What’s not to like?

I met Gail Carriger at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2010, the year after Soulless was released and she’s just as delightful as the book: charming, knowledgeable, and a true tea aficionado. Soulless has continued the evolution of Steampunk and by adding comedy and romance to the world of steam and top hats it has attracted many more readers to this wonderful sub-genre.

Informed readers will note that I haven’t included any works by Jules Verne or HG Wells, who are often called the Fathers of Steampunk. That’s because, to my mind, Steampunk is a modern take on their kind of stories, a retrospective view of the Victorian era, with our contemporary sensibilities. As such, Verne and Wells (and their contemporaries) simply can’t be Steampunk. They’re not looking back on an era. If anything, they’re looking forward!

By Gail Carriger,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Soulless as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high…

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Book cover of A Darling Handyman

Lark Holiday Author Of A Darling Handyman

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