Publication Date: May 24, 2011
In 1897 England, 16-year-old Finley Jayne is convinced she's a freak. No normal Victorian girl has a darker side that makes her capable of knocking out a full-grown man with one punch. Only Griffin King sees the magical darkness inside her that says she's special . . . that she's one of "them."
As a dedicated fan of the steampunk genre, reading multiple reviews of Kady Cross' The Girl in the Steel Corset inspired the need to clarify what I would consider two different types of steampunk books. The first sort is heavily influenced by the science and technology of Jules Verne, and the harsher social realities of Victorian England. Sure, there are rockin' cool mechanical devices; but they have an organic development from something that came before. They often take technology that previously existed, then go a new way with it--having steam engines remain dominant rather than succumbing to internal combustion engines. Other times, they take a modern need, think about the technology available at the time, and find a logical way that the technology of the late 19th to early 20th century could meet that modern need. They are often very Vernian in how these machines are described, and could be considered almost alternative history. Likewise, yes, there is a profusion of velvet and corsets and parasols. However, they also have filth in the streets, five year old chimney sweeps dying in the chimney, and suffocatingly strict codes of behavior for social interaction. Victoria and Verne would recognize their world.
The second sort is substantially different. They are written for the modern-day velvet corset wearer who glues gears to her iphone, or the guy with the monacle and watch fob and desktop tricked out with brass paneling and typewriter keys. They are basically all the trappings and technology of modern day society with a romanticized "Victorian" aesthetic. It doesn't really matter if sociological or technological aspects of the novel are "accurate," because that isn't really the point. They are inspired by rather than based on Vernian and Victorian qualities. One type of steampunk is not necessarily better than the other, but it can be very disappointing to go into a book looking for one type to find the other. Kady Cross' The Girl in the Steel Corset is firmly and unabashedly in the later camp.
To that end, as far as world building goes, The Girl in the Steel Corset is basically set in a modern society with Victorian-inspired details. Cross has flashlights, text messaging, tattoo guns, multi-disc cd players, motorcycles, and motion sensitive tracking devices--just think metal for plastic or silicon and wind-up for plug-in and you've got the quirks in the design. Her ladies can wear shorts with their corsets, fishnets with their lace-up boots. Tattoos and facial piercings abound. In fact, establishing this aesthetic seems to be so important to Cross that other things, such as character development and plot progression, sometimes fall victim to her copious descriptions of what everyone was wearing and what device they were using.
Cross also often references things that have happened prior to the novel with people who are not in the novel. Don't get me wrong, having back stories for your characters is marvelous for making sure they are believable! BUT, it shouldn't be referred to in such a way that I, as the reader, feel like I am reading the second or third book in a series without having read the others first! Cross is also very redundant in her descriptions: if I have to read Emily's hair described as "ropey" one more time I think I will scream! Also, Cross' attempts at creating an X-Men/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mash-up are, at times, really obvious, but that makes them no less successful. None of these problems are particularly egregious in a debut novel. In fact, The Girl in the Steel Corset is a very fast, fun read.
However, I do have one issue with the book that I found very frustrating. One of the characters has the ability to reads minds, and does so in an unrepentantly aggressive way, despite repeatedly being asked to stop or being told no by other characters. Despite this behaviour (which I would consider abusive), she is mostly treated as a 'good' or 'positive' character by the author.
For more information on Steampunk, check out Brass Goggles: The lighter side of Steampunk. They have tons of links out to cool things as well.
The review also appears on Goodreads; I borrowed The Girl in the Steel Corset from my local library.