Book Review: Heart of Brass by Felicity Banks

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to my review of Heart of Brass, the first of the Antipodean Queen trilogy by Felicity Banks.

s-l640

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!

Until next time,

Valete

Dear Twenty-Year-Old Me

Dear Twenty-year-old Me,

Right now, I’ve just turned thirty. Everyone assures me this is a huge milestone. Folks these days talk about turning thirty the way they used to talk about turning twenty-one. Apparently this is when real adulthood begins—when you settle down, get serious about your career, start a family. It sometimes seems like my generation spent its twenties lounging on the couch watching Spongebob and washing down fruit loops with vodka. That’s not going to be you. Sorry. In terms of life achievements, you’re going to pole-vault right over your twenties and land square in your thirties. It won’t be long now before you’re married and have two little people in your life who will argue with you on the correct way to use a lavatory.

And you know what? It’s going to be awesome. Your kids will teach you to see the world through new eyes, to appreciate just how amazing life can be. You’re going to read them Narnia and Roald Dahl, and they’ll applaud when you do the funny voices. Don’t misunderstand me, it won’t be easy—basically, you’re going to get signed up for a fulltime job where you are on call twenty-four hours a day, get no sick leave and no holidays. Sometimes, when the kids wake you up at four in the morning because they can’t find their damned Pokémon cards, it’ll feel like this will never end. But you’re doing something amazing—building a life together, teaching and nurturing them to become the best they can be. You wouldn’t trade the feeling of having your children fall asleep on your chest for anything.

Right now, at twenty, you’re working two jobs to get yourself through uni. You didn’t achieve stellar academic results in your first year, and you wonder whether it’s really worth it, especially when all you want to be is a writer. Don’t worry—you’re going to start hitting your academic goals in second year. Uni is a learning curve, so don’t beat yourself up. Your parents assure you that an Arts degree is going to be your ticket to stability in life. Don’t hold that against them. Mum and Dad are just passing on the wisdom of their generation. They didn’t realise that they came of age in the heyday of the liberal arts, and they couldn’t have known. Don’t fret about the value of an Arts degree. In about eighteen months, this thing called the Global Financial Crisis is going to happen, and it will mean the end of stability for your generation, regardless of what you study. Economic neo-liberalism will come to be taken for common sense, and most of the jobs will be casualised. It sucks, but you’ll make the best of it. Getting out of poverty is going to be an incremental process, and it isn’t going to be because of your education so much as your willingness to work hard and take opportunities as they come along. In this, you will be no different from anybody else.

But, um, if you want to invest in these things called Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t object.

At one point, after finishing the PhD, you’re going to convince yourself that being a school teacher is the best and only use of your knowledge and skills. The bad news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. The good news? This is going to be the biggest mistake of your twenties. Anybody who can make it in the secondary education system will forever have your respect and admiration, but a job which involves reprimanding kids about their socks isn’t for you. Luckily, it’ll turn out that you’re good at other things too, and you learned a lot from your experience working in schools.

Oh, and that ambition to become a writer? It’s going to happen, but not until you figure out why you’re doing this. You’ll turn your PhD thesis into a book and advance human knowledge by a micron or two. Go you, but remember it’s not the Nobel Prize. The real test is whether your research is going to make a difference in people’s lives and have an impact upon the world. Let’s see what happens there, eh? The greatest thing you’ll gain from your education is comprehension of how little you really understand, and how much of the world there is to see.

It’s much better than it sounds right now.

I also happen to know you’re working on a novel. You’re far too scared to show it to anybody, but you’re convinced it’ll be the next blockbuster. Hate to say it, Twenty-year-old Me, but the one attitude cancels out the other. And it’s not going to be a bestseller, and that’s fine. That poor, unfortunate, half-formed novel is going to be valuable as a learning experience. You’ll gain the confidence to experiment with language, hone your storytelling ability. Most of all, you’ll learn how far you’ve got to go. Don’t be downhearted.

You’ll apply what you learned from your first attempt when you put pen to paper on your next novel. In hospital on the day your son is born, you’ll start scratching out a first chapter while your wife sleeps. You’ll keep scratching at it until it becomes a first draft. By the time you get to draft four, you’ll show it to other writers, and learn how to deal with criticism—both constructive and otherwise. Eventually you will tally of your drafts and feel like a gunslinger notching his rifle. At writing conferences, you will make like-minded friends who want your story to succeed just as much as you do and give you thorough critiques. It’ll be strange and a little intimidating, but you will repay the favour in kind. That’s how it works in the writerly world. With every stroke of the red pen, you become stronger as an author.

And on the bestseller thing? Sorry, Twenty-year-old Julian, you’ve got it wrong. As much as you might love JK Rowling’s work and hope to walk in her footsteps, her career is the exception rather than the rule. And Rowling didn’t write with the intention of becoming a bestselling author. She had a story which she wanted to share with the world. C.S. Lewis once said that we read to know we’re not alone. The flip side, of course, is that we write to reach out to others. It shouldn’t just be about selling books. It’s about contributing something to the community, giving people something to enrich their lives. Achieving sales matters far less than reaching the people who need your story.

By the way, it won’t be long now before you see second-hand bookstores flooded with unwanted copies of this these books called The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. Learn well from this: you can sell a story to millions and reach nobody. Far better, I think, to reach a few to whom your story means a lot.

Over and over, you’re going to be absolutely bamboozled by the human instinct to tear each other down over differences. You’ll figure out over the next ten years or so that story is the answer: to have the courage to speak, and to listen. Story brings people together, binds us. Sort of like the Force.

Also, right at the tail end of your twenties, Disney is going to purchase Star Wars and release the sequel trilogy, and—don’t look at me like that, it’ll be loads better than you expect. Remember when Disney started making Marvel movies? Oh wait, that hasn’t happened yet. Disregard.

Read, Past Me. Read stories from as many different perspectives as possible. I know you love fantasy and historical and science fiction, and that’s cool, but even within those genres there’s a lot more diversity than you choose to see right now. You’ll go through periods where you choose to read only novels written by women, or by people of colour. The ones by women of colour will teach you the most! As you discover more stories grounded in the here and now, you will find the world is more fantastic than you ever realised. Hear other people’s stories, the stories of strangers you meet in the streets. When you develop the capacity for patience, you will discover every human being is on their own hero’s journey. Learn how complicated and wonderful and strange the world is, and be willing to acknowledge the limitations of your understanding. That is the first step toward growth.

Just a couple more messages, Twenty-year-old Me. Over the next decade, you’ll start to learn how to take care of yourself. I don’t just mean how to pick out your own clothes and cook your own meals. When you’re there for people, you throw yourself into their wellbeing and care for them with your whole heart. And that’s good, that’s fine, that’s a part of who you are. But sometimes you’re going to get hurt, and sometimes you’re going to get exhausted. Once in a while, your caring will get thrown in your face. A handful of others will care for you as much as you do them. Nourish these relationships, but be mindful of your own needs also. It’s true that love is not a finite resource, but time and energy are. Don’t waste them on people who treat you as though you’re a complication in their life story.

In the end, there’s going to be one person who sticks by your side, and she is the love of your life. Right now, Twenty-year-old Me, you’re thinking about asking Kelly to marry you. There’s plenty of folks who will tell you it’s a mistake. Don’t listen to them. Getting married is the best thing you’ll ever do. Cherish Kelly, adore her and love her with all your silly heart. That’s what’s important. You already know it, I think, though you don’t quite know what it means yet.

I’ll close with a timey-whimey wibbly wobbly quote from your future and my past: ‘We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?’

Until next time, vale.

Thirty-year-old Julian