I've been thinking about mood and reading recently, although maybe that's the wrong way to put it. My Summer of Steampunk has morphed into Steampunk Planet (which I now think I'm ready to get off, thank you), and I'm still churning through the lower midlist of steampunk titles available at my library. (Hey, whatever, she said defensively; it's been a bad year.) I rarely say anything about these here books, because they are all so of a piece in terms of ornament and prose style, protagonist and plot. But I do definitely have my preferences, and I've been curious what that thing is between the book I quit in complete frustration, and the one that surprised me with how quickly and pleasantly it went down. I read (most) of the books God Save the Queen and Greyfriar in the last month. One of these books is the former, and one is the latter.
The novels are very similar to one another, from kind of broad & contested categories like "quality" -- both novels are action intrigue with straightforward prose styles -- down to similarly gormless young women as their protagonists. Both have vampires and the English empire, court politics and mysterious mentors, uprisings and labor, fight scenes and monsters. Both are nominally steampunk, which I've come to realize can mean "historical paranomal with vague Victorian elements". (Arguably, this is almost always what it means, but I've been subject to so many sermonettes from my guy about the alt-history of technology and mass production as colonization yadda yadda that my understanding of the genre was, let's just say obscured.)
God Save the Queen begins with a tense visit to the London Underground, where the goblins live. Xandra (and this name is an indicator of things to come) needs to talk to the goblins about her missing sister. There's some infodumping, but I'm not really minding because the set-up is novel enough: the aristocracy of England have become vampires, and the English Empire has continued to the present day, without all the bother of world wars, etc. (Actually, the vampire aristocracy is far from novel, but the present day bit, with current tech like cars and CD players -- though they are given cute new names -- is not something I've seen before.)
Xandra is some kind of police enforcer thing and "half-plagued", though I could not tell you exactly what that means. Apparently, vampirism is somehow both a virus AND a genetic disorder, and somehow goblins come about because of...vampires breeding? That can't work. Look, I don't know. Honestly, the infodumping got so bad I just fucking skipped it, because it made zero sense and was waaaay to convoluted. Oh, also, there are werewolves, although maybe they're called lycans, and they are somehow in the whole plague/gene mess with the vampires and the goblins. I suspect there's a Venn diagram somehow. Anyhoo.
Greyfriar instead starts on an Imperial airship, the teenage heirs to the Alexandrian throne out for a jaunt to the border towns. This alt-history also involves vampires, though these vampires came out of the shadows 150 years ago and slaughtered everyone in the colder parts of the world. Apparently, vampires can't stand the heat, so a band roughly at, say, the French Riviera or so cuts off their holdings from the humans. The seat of the English Empire decamped for its holdings (Egypt, India, etc), and everything seems culturally pluralistic in that vague way that doesn't actually include cultures other than white European. The airship is set upon by vampires; Princess Adele falls in with Robin Hood-ish figure Greyfriar; there's a race across the continent to a vampire-run London, etc.
Princess Adele is a little annoying, in that it's clear she has some kind of magical power that her sketchy band of councilors have been nurturing, and also because she's a godamn princess. Greyfriar, well, I do not think it's any kind of spoiler to say that it's more than obvious what his secret is -- lessee, he's a vampire hunter with vampire-like powers and he never shows his face, hmmm -- though that secret is dispensed with quickly, thank the starry heavens. The vampires annoyed me a little too, in that we're told they don't like human stuff like clothes or social hierarchies and the like, but then they're always wearing clothes and jostling for power in a recognizable political system based on primogeniture. I mean, what gives? It reads as squeamishness, not even wanting to mention things like shhhh naked bodies, when we're told explicitly (heh) that this would be the norm.
Xandra from God Save the Queen is similarly annoying. Xandra is a half-vampire in a world where the humans rose up and tried to kill their vampire overlords in the memorable past. Xandra hates the fuck out of humans because of this, which felt awkward for this human to read. (She's half-vamp because her dad got down with a whole houseful of human women at some point, and this is excused as a "mid-life crisis." She lives with most of her half-siblings. This seems awkward but they don't seem to mind.) She's always hanging out with her mentor, some inscrutable vampire dude, and bitching about how humans are so jelly that she's got red hair and is just the absolute very best at everything she ever does. None of this endears her to me.
Roughly a thousand red flags are waved beneath Xandra's nose about the true nature of the aristocracy -- let's just parse the metaphorics of a literally blood-drinking upperclass for a moment -- though at half-point, when I abandoned book, Xandra was still fully vampires rule, humans drool. Now, it's entirely possible that it will turn out that the aristocracy is kewl, and that Xandra's mother and sister, who warn her in no uncertain terms about her mentor, will turn out to be wrong. I haven't finished the book. But I suspect that what is really happening is that the aristocracy is eeevil, her mentor will betray her, she's going to end up the Chosen One, etc etc etc. The football in this book is not so much hidden as lodged so far up this book's ass it's causing acid reflux. DO NOT try to hide the football for this long; you only insult and annoy your readers: Sometimes I just can't stand to see the inevitable play out, especially a revelation as tired as "maybe the blood-drinking upper classes don't have my best interests at heart." You think?
Which is a funny thing to say, because certainly Greyfriar isn't, you know, messing with my expectations at all, and I probably could have accurately predicted the outcome at least at the halfway point, if not sooner. In some ways, predictability is why I'm reading the midlist, because I am a tired and sad panda and cannot handle anything with more challenge to it. So why did I chuck one book and not the other? Both have their irritations with world-building, characters, and plots. Both also have their charms. I could easily imagine a reader who felt completely differently from me -- which has happened a couple times, when I read reviews by people who had the exact opposite reactions from mine -- who loved God Save the Queen and couldn't finish Greyfriar.
While both feel a lot like young adult literature -- from the age of protagonist to the overall coyness i/r/t sex and violence -- God Save the Queen has just a little bit more juice. The world has an on-the-street grit to it that Greyfriar lacks, with street fights and some tension to the action. Greyfriar has a higher body count, but it's all videogame violence, killing off faceless baddies with little consequence. God Save the Queen is definitely on the punkier end of steampunk, which is a quality I often prefer. But good god damn, I could not even deal with how fucking thick Xandra was. At least Princess Adele was just naive, not actively pig-headed, though I'll admit I worried about her sense when she sorted about the big "secret" and lost her damn mind -- ugh, seriously, stop being so foolish. Which she then did! Yay!
But, for me, the the world and its ornament was better in Greyfriar, from the geomancy to the horribly gauche American characters. They were straight up funny. Maybe it was point of view? God Save the Queen is first person, and Xandra's voice had a nasty self-satisfied whine to it. I've certainly had books go the other way, where the jerk first person narrator completely makes the book -- like Lolita or Bray House -- but in books where we're clearly supposed to identify with the narrator, no. Maybe it's the football-hiding, which certainly put me off in Queen, but it's possible I'm an old desiccated crank, and others will find Xandra's loyalties understandable or even commendable. (No.)
Maybe it's mood, maybe it's a bad potato, maybe it's who even knows. But I couldn't even finish God Save the Queen, and I enjoyed Greyfriar beyond its merits. Ultimately, and in the parlance of our times, ¯_(ツ)_/¯