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Romance Novels: What Is “Steampunk”? Special guest blogger Shelley Adina (@ShelleyAdina) #amwriting

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Continuing the series on Romance Novel genres, please welcome special guest poster Shelley Adina today.

Shelley Adina on Steampunk Romance

An Early Affection for Steampunk

It’s been a long, strange publishing trip for me . . . from romance to Christian women’s fiction to YA to steampunk. But in writing steampunk, I feel as though I’ve returned to my first love (and who doesn’t like reunion stories?). You see, back in the sixties, as a Canadian child living on an island off the west coast, we got one American channel on the TV, and it broadcasted my favorite show: The Wild Wild West. Every week, Artemus Gordon invented a cool new device or disguise, and of course, the train that carried the two secret agents on their missions was packed full of fantastic weapons and hidden technology. My neighborhood bunch never played house like other kids. We’d play “escape from the orphanage” and “pirates” and we’d re-enact the episodes from that week’s Wild Wild West. Since I was the oldest, I got to be James West. But I secretly wanted to be Artemus. In my view, brains outshone brawn any day.

That outlook still pervades my books, where a lady of resources can make a success of herself no matter what her economic status, because she has the brains to do so. It’s part of what attracts me to steampunk—that hint of subversion, of turning Victorian mores and expectations and society’s standards upside down, especially when they involve women and people of color. And as romance tends to do, we can apply that hint of subversion in our courtship stories, too.

The Tropes and Expectations of Steampunk


Fields of Air by Shelley Adina

In steampunk, there are tropes that readers expect to see—but like any trope, you run the risk of overuse turning them into a cliché. For instance, a book cover with a pair of goggles, some gears, and maybe some clockwork gives the reader instant cues that this one’s steampunk. The titles of my first quartet contain the word devices, another trope. There can be a mad scientist, or a lady explorer with a set of watercolors in her satchel and a Derringer strapped to her thigh, to say nothing of air pirates. But a good steampunk story goes deeper than these useful bits of genre shorthand.

In my mind, the most important element is a resourceful character with a mechanical or adventurous turn of mind—a character who is up to the challenge of your plot. You need lashings of adventure, and heaps of imagination with which to build your story world. Simply locating your story in Victorian London and having an airship sail overhead periodically is not going to produce a steampunk novel. That’s cover art.

Steampunk in the Romance Genre

In the courtship story, you might find the heroine with mechanical abilities being tapped by a secret agency to work undercover “for the Empire.” If she falls in love, it might endanger the mission, whereupon the heroine has a choice—the good of the country versus the needs of her own heart. This is the kind of romance conflict that male heroes have been used to dealing with for decades; but just as romances have changed to keep pace with today’s active women, in steampunk, danger and suspense are equal-opportunity problems as well.

Steampunk has something to say—about society, about gender roles, about human ability. The “punk” element is what sets it apart from either fantasy or historical fiction. It’s subversive, it’s critical, and the reader ought to come out of it both greatly entertained and a little bit changed.

A Few Steampunk Favorites

Some of my favorite examples of steampunk romance include Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books and Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge series. Also, the young adult genre harbors some excellent steampunk, such as Kenneth Oppel’s Matt Cruse trilogy (which starts with Airborn) and Scott Westerfeld’s epic Leviathan trilogy. Then there’s Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books and Devon Monk’s weird west series, Age of Steam (the first book, Dead Iron, was a total head trip) that are more action-oriented women’s fiction, or action-adventure, than romance, but still manage to turn women’s roles on their heads.

This genre is rife with fabulous imaginations and amazing worlds that never were . . . but could have been. The airship is waiting here at its mooring mast—I invite you aboard!


The Magnificent Devices series by Shelley Adina

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Shelley AdinaShelley Adina is the author of 24 novels published by Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette, and 12 published by Moonshell Books, Inc., her own independent press. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, where she is adjunct faculty. She won RWA’s RITA Award® in 2005, and was a finalist in 2006. When she’s not writing, she’s usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or hanging out with her flock of rescued chickens.

To learn more about Shelley and about her books and upcoming projects, connect with her online via:
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Twitter: @shelleyadina

  1. Thursday, April 14, 2016 3:07 pm

    ‘Lady of Devices’ was the first steampunk book I read. It opened up a whole new genre for me – now I’m plotting my own steampunk novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thursday, April 14, 2016 3:09 pm

      That’s awesome to hear! I have LoD on my Kindle and it’s probably going to be a must-read-next for me now!


  2. Thursday, April 14, 2016 3:46 pm

    This just happened at Mount Hermon, too, in my indie publishing track–one of the students (a pastor!) had two chapters of his first steampunk novel written by the next morning!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thursday, April 14, 2016 8:22 pm

      Revised and still going strong. Thanks for your inspiration, leadership, skill, and teaching. 🙂


      • Thursday, April 14, 2016 10:38 pm

        I hope you’ll tell me when it comes out 🙂 I want to know what happens!


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