June 7, 2020

Book Review: Alchemy & Steam edited by Kerrie L. Hughes

On sale now.

Been to a major ‘Con lately? Then you’ll note that the Steampunk genre is alive and well, in the form of retro costumes straight out of the 19th century, replete with high tech gear including cybernetic implants, targeting monocles and the like.

Fans love to party like it’s an alternative reality 1899, that’s for sure.  This week’s review takes the concept a step further, and invites 13 fresh new speculative fiction writers to imagine brave new universes. Alchemy and Steam edited by Kerrie L. Hughes and out early this year courtesy of WMG Publishing is an original anthology magazine in the Fiction River series edited by series editors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Here, arcane experiments are performed and steam powered gears turn all towards the telling of a good yarn. Fans of this space and the Fiction River series will also remember our recent reviews of Recycled Pulp, and Universe Between.

What I particularly like with the Fiction River series is the way it simply gives a writer a title as a central premise and allows them to run with it. Try it sometime… it’s harder than you’d think to do on the spot. And yet these fertile imaginations take these ideas to wild and wonderful directions.

As a small sampling, some of our favorite highlights from the collection include:

The Perfect Perfume by Anthea Sharp. Chemistry meets Victorian sensibilities in this short tale with a big heart. The detail rendered in the story as the protagonist tries one concoction after another in the great tradition of arcane alchemy is exquisite. But is there one true ‘perfect perfume’ to arrive at?

Blood Moon Carnival by Kim May. OK, as a dedicated backyard observer and frequent writer about all things lunar, you had us at ‘Blood Moon…’ Blood Moon Carnival melds fantasy and desperation as characters seek to escape a hopeless predicament. ‘Step right up, coming soon to a carnival near you…’

Makes the World Go ‘Round by Kelly Cairo. Part mythos, part fantasy and a dash of steam punk alchemy makes for a great parable. A 10,000 year old clerical error may bring the gears of the world to a grinding halt.  I love the alternate universe /meets mythological tale vibe on this one.

And that’s just a small sampling of the remarkable tales within. Alchemy and Steam follows one of the central tenants of Steampunk and good alt-universe sci-fi/ speculative fiction, idealized in William Gibson’s The Difference Engine: why is this universe different from our own in the first place? Was Babbage’s machine actually built, ushering in a cybernetic Victorian era?

(One of our all-time faves in this regard is the Burton and Swinburne adventure The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack)

Be sure to check out Alchemy and Steam before your next steampunk cosplay adventure!

Next up for November: Speaking of scientists whose interests run towards the arcane and the occult, we’ll be reviewing Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy by David Love out soon from Prometheus Books!

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