Bibliomancy was a form of divination which was popular in the Middle Ages. First, you picked up a sacred or significant text, like Homer or Virgil or the Bible. You laid the book on its spine, allowing it to fall open. Then you shut your eyes and picked a passage at random from the open page. This passage supposedly revealed something about your future.
When you try it these days there is a chance you’ll get stuck with the copyright page, which is very confusing. I suspect this is how many copyright lawyers found their start.
Welcome to my review of Heart of Brass, the first of the Antipodean Queen trilogy by Felicity Banks.
Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which I’ve only occasionally dipped my toes. It’s so extensive, I have never been quite sure where to start. Heck, it’s more than a subgenre, it’s a subculture. Quick introduction for the uninitiated: in the world of story-telling, steampunk occupies a unique space, somewhere between historical and science fiction, sometimes with elements of the supernatural. The writer of steampunk creates a world based upon the late nineteenth-century fascination with technological progress. Taking their cue from authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whom I loved as a kid, steampunk authors pepper their worlds with futuristic ‘what if’ ideas. What if we never abandoned steam power in favour of internal combustion, but pushed the technology to its limits?
Unlike Verne and Wells, however, a steampunk author isn’t so much elaborating on the present as they are drawing upon notions of the past. Therefore I’d argue that effective steampunk needs to carry a sense of historicity as well as the fantastic. It’s all very well to create a world where folk whizz about on steam-powered motorcycles and wear goggles as a fashion statement, but effective steampunk also needs to capture social mores and attitudes of the Victorian era. And this can be the triumph or the downfall of the genre. Some readers find the subgenre Eurocentric, homophobic or misogynistic, a celebration of archaic attitudes which belong to an imperialist age. How refreshing to find Heart of Brass has none of these negative qualities!
Banks’s novel bowls along at a terrific pace and is filled with fantastic detail, yet the real brilliance of Heart of Brass is its subversion of the unsavoury aspects of the genre. Through deep and sympathetic understanding of the period setting, Banks has crafted a more vibrant tale. By setting the novel in late convict-era Australia, Banks tells the story from the viewpoint not just of the coloniser but also of the colonised. Our protagonist, Emmeline Muchamore is a proper young Englishwoman who carries a dark secret— or rather, a bright shiny one. Her steam-powered brass heart is a source of scandal in London high society. When it goes kaput, Emmeline steals the silver the needs to make repairs. Convicted of petty theft, Emmeline is transported to the distant colony of Australia—or Hades, as she initially calls it. Caught in the fever of the gold rush, Emmeline is swept into an adventure with a pair of ballooning bushrangers and marauding prospectors astride tin horses. In the bloodbath of the Eureka Rebellion, Emmeline’s love of all things imperial is challenged for the first time.
Full disclosure: as an Aussie who is more than a bit partial to adventure stories, I’m really happy the phrase ‘ballooning bushranger’ now exists.
The novel aptly demonstrates that inclusivity enriches a story. Without giving away too many spoilers, Banks includes marginalised characters from the viewpoint of a Christian protagonist. Historically, it makes sense for Emmeline to be part of the Church of England. Yet the Christian viewpoint never drowns out the voices of Aboriginal and queer characters. Banks put in the hard work to ensure that her work is culturally sensitive, consulting Dr Anita Heiss in the preparation of her manuscript. Inclusivity works best when marginalised characters are integral to the narrative, not added in a display of tokenism. The heroes of Emmeline’s world are the dispossessed and the outcast, and she doesn’t shy away from showing Emmeline’s internal conflict when she is confronted by her own privilege. The result is a more complex and dynamic story.
It’s not really a criticism to say that the story left me with a few questions which I would love to see answered in the sequels: for example, it’s never made entirely clear why Emmeline’s father replaced her organic heart with a biological one, or how artificial intelligence works in mechanical beasts the heroes encounter. I know that Heart of Brass exists in a world with its own internal logic, but it’s a world I’d like to explore in greater depth.
All in all, this is a cracking read, and I can’t wait to read the recent sequel, Silver and Stone. Fingers crossed for Ned Kelly-style power armour at some point in the series!