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Book Review: Once Upon a Clockwork Tale: a Short Story Collection

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Like a locomotive, Steampunk seems to be charging into the world of speculative fiction.  It is by no means a new genre, arguably the first “Science Fiction” from the days of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and of course Jules Verne fits in the category.  Romances with scientific or mechanized themes go back even further to Baron Munchausen’s trip to the moon or even Jason’s battle with a bronze giant (implied: robot) during his quest for the Golden Fleece.  Today, Steampunk continues to gain steam in stories focused on the past, alternate realities, or even apocalypses.  It is a versatile genre that may soon be considered shoulder-to-shoulder with Fantasy and Science Fiction.

clockworktaleEchelon Press is a great among indie presses leading the way in Steampunk exploration.  Their latest anthology, Once Upon a Clockwork Tale, gives a new look at fairytales through the lens of smoke-fogged goggles.  In four novellas, stories we have heard before come alive in a new fashion.

In “Wings” by Ella Grey, Winifred Bell is the plucky daughter of a genius at “augmentation.”  While her father encourages (perhaps even pushes) her to follow her talents, she lives in a backward world where it is “strictly forbidden for a girl to enter the Hall of Scientists” and a huge disparity lies between the working poor and the noble upper class.  Overcoming a world set against her and dark odds, she proves an inspirational protagonist.

“Hands and Grater” by Robin Wyatt Dunn explores one of the great subgenres of Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic.  A take on the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel, the unfortunate siblings are raised by a care-giving automaton from whom they run to seek their fortunes.  The world has declined and is filled with dangers unseen even in a fairy tale forest.  Told in first person from both perspectives alternately (as well as more), it is an interesting and captivating experiment on a number of levels.

Kat French’s “Bitter Cold” is a fresh look at the classic “The Snow Queen.”  While not as famous as “The Little Mermaid,” this is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most powerful works, showing the ongoing struggle between good and evil and its effects on individuals as well as the overall world.  French does well to reimagine the story, keeping its potency while adding Steampunk innovations like robotic reindeer.  The prose is punchy and fun, making it very readable with a hook like, “With a little luck, and steady nerves, she wouldn’t blow up the laboratory again.”

Lastly, “The Enchanted Bean” by Matt Mitrovich creates a great mix of genre by solving the problem of the magical beanstalk with the Steampunk commonality, the airship.  Reaching a kingdom of giants in the sky is a major task for Jack climbing under his own power, but it is a noble and innovative task for an expedition under Professor Charles F. Ritchel.  It is classic Steampunk, taking Victorian explorers from our world into one stretching the imagination.

Once Upon a Clockwork Tale is a must-read for Steampunk enthusiasts as well as a great introduction to the genre for newcomers.  The four different voices give a good display of what can be done in the genre discovering new realms in literature.

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About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.