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

My writerly month, September 2017

Salvete, readers!

I trust we all made it through September intact? It was another frantic month for me, but I accomplished a few things I’m proud of.

A few months ago I mentioned that I had co-written an article on mythography with two amazing co-authors, Dr Greta Hawes and Prof Minerva Alganza Roldán. Guess what? The article passed peer review with only a few minor amendments, and will be included in Polymnia this December. Keep your eyes peeled for: “The reception history of Palaephatus 1 (On the Centaurs) in Ancient and Byzantine texts.” I’m really excited by the opportunity to share some cool things my co-authors and I have discovered. We are now among the select few who can honestly proclaim themselves experts regarding the gastronomic habits of Centaurs. And guess what? The best bit is that it’s an open access journal, so it won’t be behind a paywall. Huzzah!

I got a few other things done. During my holidays I managed to bang out more on the middle-grade novel I’m working on with my seven-year-old. Or rather, I’m working on it, and he passes me notes like some Hollywood producer. It’s getting harder as it goes along, to be honest. He was so enthusiastic early on, and we built up great creative energy as we constructed a world together and populated it with characters and creatures. It all started when he wanted a sword-and-sorcery style adventure which featured automatons and submarines. Why not? From there I built upon my knowledge of medieval folklore and combined it with my interest in Roman Britain. The result is basically Celtic myth meets steampunk, with bonus talking animals. It’s absolutely as bonkers as it sounds, and I’m loving the journey. More than that, I loved the experience of creating a world together and reading him a chapter every second night.

Problem is, he was under the impression the whole book would be written in a day or two. Three, tops. And then it would be in the shops a couple of weeks later. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nothing I said would convince him otherwise. When he finally realised how long it takes to write a novel, he decided it would be much more fun to create his own comic book about surviving on a deserted island. In the meantime, he’s moved onto other bedtime stories (Mission Fox! Beast Quest! Yay!) and I’ve lost my deadline. Damn, blast, botheration! I was counting on that deadline. It stopped me dithering over the chapters, as I had to produce one every two days. That’s okay. He still wants me to finish the story and read it to him in full when it’s done. He’s still excited about it, and I think he appreciates me writing a story for him. I need to give him the room he needs to become his own creative person.

In the meantime, the story’s become more of a hard slog. I think that’s pretty normal for a writer, isn’t it? I’m two thirds of the way through draft 1, and I want it out of the way by Christmas. There. That’ll be my deadline. It’ll have to do.

I also spent a bit of my holiday reading the ARC of Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver. I’ve been listening to their podcast, The Bestseller Experiment, for a long time now, learning along with the two Marks as they set out to write, publish and market their novel in just a year. The podcast itself is pure gold—it’s like getting free admission to a writer’s workshop every single week as they interview various authors (both indie and traditional) and people who work in different aspects of the publishing industry. I’ll admit that I had some trepidation as I opened the file on my e-reader. What if, after looking forward to the story for so long, it turned out to be a complete car crash? I needn’t have worried. The book is good. Really bloody good. I’ll post a full review when it’s released on October 16. For now, I always gain a sense of accomplishment from helping out fellow authors. We’re all in this together.

Until next time,

Valete