Note: This review was first published in Steampunk Magazine January 2013
Genre: New World Steampunk
Media: Online Serial Novel
Author: Benjamin Jacobson
"In the grand tradition of Charles Dickens and Johnny Rotten, this serialized tale comes both to celebrate the past and bury it."
- Benjamin Jacobson
Steampunk is one of the fastest growing genres in literature today. Simply employing the word to describe a work evokes images of the Victorian era, and gears, and corsets, and goggles. It can be written in an array of different stylistic forms and unique voices. For example, I’ve read a series of novels where a dirigible acts as a main character and another where swashbuckling air-pirates drive the plot. Others center on a mystery or a murder and still others that are motivated by suspense or political intrigue. Some are mech-centric or filled with fantasy, romance, or time-travel and, well, I think you get the idea – elements of Steampunk can be applied to almost any genre. And that’s what makes it so compelling to me as a reader. Because of Steampunk’s flexibility fans of every genre of literature will become exposed to it and that will only help it to grow in popularity and thrive in the marketplace.
SteampunX, an online serial novel by Benjamin Jacobson, is an example of the elastic qualities of Steampunk and is a unique and distinctive variation of the genre in its own right. I prefer to call it “New World Steampunk” but that alone does not give it the weight it deserves nor is it a precise enough label to fully explain its uniqueness. While most Steampunk focuses on the Victorian point of view SteampunX takes a much different approach. In a true reversal of sides this story is told from the perspectives of members of a peaceful tribe of Native Americans forced to the brink of war by conquering invaders. While unique in both its approach and world-view I found SteampunX entertaining, ably-conceived, expertly-crafted, and as alive as any published work I’ve ever read. SteampunX is an incredibly engrossing story that is, in essence, a cautionary folk tale of the spreading stains of technology across an innocent nation.
To date, Mr. Jacobson has produced three complete episodes as well as supporting and apocryphal anecdotes to complement the serialized novel. In Episode One, Funk and Puck, the fore-named teenage protagonists, and Thunder, a powerful wizard, deflect an attack by invaders determined to steal the secrets of Thunder’s steam-work mechanisms. But the assailants have broken a long-standing truce that may force an entire continent to war. In Episode Two, SteamDisco Destruction, the band of Native Americans journey to the nearby Kingdom of Neufrancaise to seek audience with the Marquis de Chartres but get caught up in a slave rebellion. In Episode Three, The Railroad Underground, the band attempts to garner support from the freed slaves of New Liberia only to be cast away. The group then sets off for Aztexico, a land of “strange spirits and fantastic pyramids,” where they hope to win military support for the inevitable war to come. Mr. Jacobson’s world-building is nostalgic and intelligent and is slowly revealed to the reader in a number of clever sub-plot twists. Not only does he craft a creation story but he takes us to an unusual slave-powered house party, teases us with a glimpse of a mechanical zombie soldier, and thrusts a main character into the lair of a mad scientist that takes great pleasure in surgically altering people into steam-borgs.
With cover art evocative of turn-of-the-century Scientific American Magazines and Victorian-era serialized novels you are quickly swept back to a time before the advent of modern technology when steam-power ruled the land and wizards created clockwork contrivances. After each episode Mr. Jacobson includes a few pages of authentic-appearing Victorian-style advertisements. Some, while completely fictitious, are none-the-less decidedly entertaining and depict the precise style and nuance of a by-gone age, while others are actual advertisements for Steampunk-centric merchandise, paraphernalia, clothing, jewelry, and objects d’art.
I recommend Benjamin Jacobson’s SteampunX to fans, young and old, of Steampunk and its many variations, those who take pleasure in alternate universe stories, and anyone interested in New World folklore, shamanism, steam-powered contraptions, and gears (all sizes). SteampunX is available to read online and as a free download in various formats at Smashwords.
File with: Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker novels, Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century cycle, and Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne books.
4 ½ stars out of 5