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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

Summer of Steampunk: Prince of Hearts

Prince of Hearts  - Margaret Foxe

Due to a perfect storm of gin & tonics, cabin-visitation, and general slovenliness, I read roughly eleventy million pulp steampunk books this summer. Before they disappear into an undifferentiated stew of plucky scientist's daughters and clockwork corsets, I mean to write up just a little about each one.

 

Heretofore, I've been reviewing books from my Summer of Steampunk that aren't particularly notable. Some of this is that it's easier to be a crank; some of this is the fact that I had to get something down before I forgot clean about them. Rather than give the impression that I hate everything and why am I even reading steampulp, I wanted to get in a review of a book I enjoyed. Hey Mikey! etc. 

 

The broad strokes are thus: Aline is the personal assistant to a growly Russian dude, Sasha Romanov (and I would like to just take a moment to be a bitch about this name; really?) She quits in a fit of pique in order to marry the boring cipher she's engaged to, which puts the question to the true nature of her feelings towards her employer, &c &c. When Aline is targeted by a Jack the Ripperish murderer, a whole mess of crazy steampunkery ensues, including such things as Leonardo da Vinci, secret societies, immortals, vampires, mecha-soldiers, and the Crimean War. I generally prefer a kitchen sink approach to pulp, and this book delivers that in spades. I'll start with things that bugged, and move onto things I liked. 

 

Minuses: Prince of Hearts isn't particularly well plotted: things take too long to get started, and then happen too furiously once they do. My real problem (which became very apparent when I went to read the second in this series and had zero idea what was going on) is that the architecture of the techno-steampunkery slash paranormal taxonomy makes little sense and/or isn't explained well. I'm going to admit I don't pay attention very well to explanations or infodumps, so this could be me. Even still, I think it lacked a certain metaphorical punch necessary to be memorable.

 

Pluses: War in the Crimea, wot wot! Maybe I'm easy, but I straight up love it when people go for strange, little-remembered national conflicts in their alt-histories. I googled a little, just so I had the particulars fresh about the Crimea, and that conflict was such a pyrrhic shitshow, remembered mostly because of Florence Nightingale or the Charge of the Light Brigade. (The latter is primarily remembered because a whole mess of folk got killed attacking the wrong location. Good Lord. It's like the Battle of Thermopylae, but more of a bummer because it's stupid.) 

 

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
 
The plot doesn't get into this overmuch, but one of the secret histories of the book has to do with the Crimean War, and really anyone taking on all the complicated and ultimately pointless machinations of that conflict wins me a star. It's like the war before the Great War (which is just as complicated and ultimately pointless) but with an even bigger cultural disconnect. Paper topic: discuss why it is that we can talk about the Napoleonic Wars with more authority and regularity when mushy regional conflicts like the Crimean War have much more to do with current geopolitics, cf. the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. 
 
Anyway, plus two is that Aline is a compulsive gambler, and her blithe trottings into gambling dens, unaware that anyone has been smoothing her way, were the kind of meta-comedy I appreciate. I liked that she's an addict, full on, no metaphors of blood or supernatural whatnot. And I liked that she thinks she's slick, running off to feed her beast, but that pretty much everyone knows what she's up to. It's almost -- though I don't want to stretch it too far -- a metaphor about how protagonists are treated with a certain narrative magic, protected from their worst instincts by the hand of narrative expedience. She can't get knifed on the street, even though she would probably get knifed on the street, because she has the supernatural hand of her employer/writer making sure she doesn't. Good. 
 
I think I remember h8ing the ending on this one. (I'm sorry; it's been a while.) My memory is of a third act turn where Aline runs away and then there's a dopey reunion played to the cheap seats, but it's obviously not enough to spoil my thoughts on the book. Sometimes my Summer of Steampunk gave me just enough to keep me googling into the night, which is where I want to be. Boo yah.