I also tend to read more than one book at a time. At present, that means I’m simultaneously reading three gaslamp fantasy novels: Black Powder War by Naomi Novik, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, and The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells. This is the first time in all too long that I’m devouring books at such a rapid pace, and the first time in decades that the novels in question are fantasies.
Gaslamp fantasies, as the link above will explain, are fantasy novels set in Earth’s 19th century or worlds greatly resembling that time period. The genre is distinguished from steampunk by being actual fantasy with dragons and magicians and necromancers instead of extra-retro-sci-fi. It appeals to me as both a fan of historical fiction (including the Flashman Papers, Sherlock Holmes, and Regency romances) and as a lapsed fan of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. There is a strong streak of the liberal elitist in me, so I can’t help but enjoy stories of polite, educated heroes and heroines – especially when they’re also left-wing agitators like these characters are.
Black Powder War is the third novel in the Temeraire series, an alternate history where the Napoleonic Wars are fought with dragons used as air navies. The heroes are Captain William Laurence, a somewhat uptight naval man, and his dragon Temeraire, a young Chinese dragon who was on his way to Napoleon when his egg was captured by Laurence’s ship. Novik’s Dragons imprint on their captains in a fashion similar to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, but the dragons are fully sentient, can talk, and don’t override their captains’ sex drives. The “fully sentient” part is important; a major plot developed through the series is Laurence coming to terms with and support of Temeraire’s desire for the same rights as human beings. This is also the first series of books Robin and I have shared in years. We just started reading in May and we’re already halfway through the eight-book series. It is a tremendous delight to find my wife just as absorbed in a Napoleonic Wars series as I am.
Naomi Novik’s style is engaging – it reminds me more than a bit of Jane Austen’s – and the plotting is… fulfilling. I’ve predicted a plot point coming way in advance more than once, but the stories aren’t predictable. I’ve always been overjoyed that a long-anticipated twist finally happened – that she fulfilled my hopes rather than dashing them to pieces. Novik has a few excerpts and short stories available on her website. I highly recommend the unrelated “Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake” to open-minded fans of pirate fiction.
I am much less far along in The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, the first of a trilogy by Mark Anthony writing as Galen Beckett (as explained on his website). I picked it up because the cover copy promised conspiracies, highwaymen, and revolutionaries; I was hoping for more of an 18th century tricorns and Illuminati feel but it is definitely more like the 19th. A lot of the review quotes seem to think it belongs in a pseudo-Victorian/Edwardian era but I’m positive it’s meant to evoke the Regency. There’s charming dandies, dinner parties, and headstrong young women of respectable but not wealthy families; it feels, frankly, like somebody else’s answer to “What if Mr. Bennett was a magician?”
Anthony/Beckett’s world is much more a fantasy world – the days and nights vary in length due to some complicated astronomy – but the names of both people and places are slightly off from Earth standard instead of bizarre tongue-twisters. History and geography are suggestive of the familiar without being identical -- there is a rather Jacobite-ish rebellion in the works (which is, perversely, my least-favorite part of the book so far) – but there are also shadow-weavers and sentient forests. I have little doubt that I’ll buy the other books in the series too, even if I don’t find it quite as compelling as the Temeraire series.
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells is actually available to read for free online at Black Gate Magazine. I’m up to Chapter Seven so far, and enjoying it enough to want to track down a print copy. It’s set in a much more late Victorian-style world; in fact, it’s very much a pastiche of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and reminds me more than a little of Arsène Lupin vs Herlock Sholmes (that was not a typo).
I’m enjoying The Death of the Necromancer, but my enthusiasm is tempered by knowing that it is only a stand-alone novel. There’s other books set in the same world at different times, but they don’t involve the same charming rogue and his band of misfits. Too bad for me, but twenty years later is rather a long time to complain about the lack of a sequel.
[I finished Black Powder War while I was at lunch. Now I have to ask myself whether I’ll jump in to the next Empire of Ivory or force myself to finish The Magicians and Mrs. Quent first. Decisions, decisions…]