I think I've figured out my issue with steampunk. I've even said this before about the genre, but I wasn't listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry - goggles and steamships and corsets - and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I'm nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are - a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don't get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity - seriously, why does "creativity" have to be so damned uniform - I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn't have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience.
That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I've seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!!
The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don't know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I'm reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it's possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I'm not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it's a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I've fallen into the gap in steampunk's split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels - not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn't going to nitpick world-building or plausibility - when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain - the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she's rocking the alt-history so hard in that series.
Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Steam
keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.
However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It's not even so much nit-picking - going after details - as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she's got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, see her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj - possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? - whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can't even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?
And the principles - the two queen's guards - are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn't get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn't so much that the world didn't make sense, it's that it made so little sense that I couldn't track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads' cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can't figure what's going on, I can't care about the outcome. I couldn't even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it.
So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there's some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to
make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking
in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen's wedding night bruisings - complete with amnesia! - this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There's even some same-sex interactions that don't seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat.
Novella two's romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She's having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there's a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn't slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.
So, anyway, I can't really say I'm going to bother with book two of this series - my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen - but I wouldn't be averse to trying out some of Grace's later books, if she writes them. She's got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.