I'm back a little earlier than I said I would be, but there's a very good reason for it. I have read a wonderful novel of urban fantasy set in a steampunk world, and I can't wait to tell you all about it. It's called Ripper's Fall, and it's written by a talented author named Byron Havranek.
The book concerns a secretive Victorian-era ministry of the British government that works from an office in London, and whose business is protecting the common citizen, or subject, to be precise, from the depredations of paranormal forces. The specific adventure of Ripper's Fall is set in motion when one of their mid-level mages witnesses, and manages to break up, the pursuit of a terrified newsboy by a spectral carriage driven by a shadowy figure wielding a whip made of human vertebrae. He pursues the boy directly into a huge church, laying waste to the furnishings and icons, and seizing the priest and a different boy than his original target before he is barely driven off by the mage and his superior with help from what appears to be an angel.
Without giving too much away, this creature belongs in a different geographical region, but it has been driven from its home by supernatural forces, and has come to the teeming city of London to snatch the souls of innocents to be used to power its return. As it resides on an alternate plane of existence and can make raids at will to whatever area is unguarded, the only way to seriously oppose it is to journey to its realm and attack it at the center of its power.
Said assault is planned and executed, and is in fact the meat of the narrative. Using the technology to hand, the ministry claims use of the Nelson, the most powerful military dirigible in the service of the Queen. A flying ship must be used, as the portal is several thousand feet above Hyde Park, so despite the inherent fragility of airships, there is no alternative. The airship itself is heavily armed, and carries "wreckers," automaton warriors programmed to kill without remorse, and whose engineer believes are more than just machines. They and the ship will provide support and diversion while the ground team, comprising the mage and his superior, a "vesper," a woman with the power to wield her voice like a weapon, an ex-Confederate sharpshooter, and a few others, slip into the monster's very lair to rescue the kidnapped victims.
There are two mechanical issues that grated on my ear and made the reading a little harder than it needed to be, and I want to get them right out front so you can make your own judgment. First, the book would have benefited from one more line edit. There are a few words that may have been left over from a rewrite, and a couple of grammar issues, but there are less than a dozen in all, and they don't contribute much to the negativity. More serious to my ear was the phonetic spelling of the sharpshooter's heavy southern accent. Many times, I had to stop and reread sentences in an attempt to figure out what he was trying to say. This is a common error committed by writers in the early potion of their careers, and I am certainly not immune to it, as anyone who struggles through the accents presented in Beyond the Rails can attest. I have since learned ways to suggest an accent without spelling it phonetically, though they are tricky to execute, but my hope is that Mr. Havranek finds a solution to this as well, as it does get in the way of an excellent story.
But not too much in the way. I didn't want to gloss this over, as it is an issue, but even with the difficult passages, this novel rates a solid 4 out of 5 stars from me. As an example of paranormal horror set against a steampunk background, it is a solid effort and well worth the read. I've enjoyed books that weren't nearly as well executed, and I strongly suggest that anyone whose interest runs along these lines could hardly do better for a spooky read on a winter's eve.
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"There are, in actual fact, men who talk like books. Happily, however, there are also books that talk like men."
~ THEODOR HAECKEROn another subject, that of writing in period which steampunk very much is, I must solicit opinions from writers and readers alike. What do you do? What do you prefer to read?
The subject is period slang and colloquialisms. Slang is a funny creature, and a moving target for a writer. As a writer, I have received the most compliments for my natural-sounding dialogue. That's flattering, and a view that I cherish, but writing period work makes it difficult. Lists of Victorian slang can be found on the web, though they often come out of context and with no guidelines, and most are difficult to work out.
Take, for example, the odd phrase, bitch the pot. The first reaction to this might be, "What the hell?" This is actually one of the less obscure terms one might encounter, and can be worked out like a puzzle. One might early on come to the realization that "pot," in Victorian terms is most likely to refer to a teapot, and with a bit more convoluted effort, the realization dawns that "bitch," then as now, was a derogatory term for a woman, who were as a rule much more interested in tea service than men, so far from meaning to "bogart a joint," "bitch the pot" was simply slang for "pour the tea." What is almost never explained in the glossaries is that this term was used exclusively in male-only gatherings; the writer is left to figure that out on his own.
So if this is one of the less obscure terms, what are we talking about here? It isn't hard to work out that tight as a boiled owl is a reference to one's state of drunkeness, but what on earth might the function of a quail-pipe be? A mutton shunter? How about neck oil? And what could the amusing term crinkum-crankum possibly be referring to? Dirty puzzle, cackle tub, inexpressibles? How, exactly, does one smother a parrot? And why would one wish to do so?
I could go on all day here, and that's part of my point. If you're a reader of steampunk, or just historical fiction in general, what do you like to see? Should I try to include all the original period slang, and try to subtly suggest what it is by context? Or would it bring your immersion to a crashing halt if I told you that someone had a fly rink? My method has been to use a more modern term, or sometimes a military or nautical term that is better understood, but when I do that, my alpha-readers tend to come unglued, and give me a severe batty-fanging.
So where's the middle ground? Primarily, I guess, what I want to know is what do you as a reader like to see? The real deal, even if you might have to stop your read to look it up, or post a mental place-holder until the context gives you the meaning, or would you rather see an imprecise but understandable term that keeps you in the narrative flow? Curious writers want to know in order to serve you better. So drop a comment, state your views, and let's talk. I'd love to hear from you.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!