Action Adventure, Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk, Young Adult

Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #2)

Cover image for Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levineby David D. Levine

ISBN 978-0-7653-8282-5

“Her husband-to-be was a prisoner of war. This matter could not be allowed to stand.”

Arabella and Captain Singh’s wedding plans are put on hold when Captain Singh is sent to Venus by the Honorable Mars Company just as Napoleon escapes his prison on the moon. Captain Singh is caught in enemy territory at the outbreak of hostilities, and is promptly captured and held prisoner on the French colony. When Arabella learns that Joseph Fouché, the Executioner of Lyon, will take charge of the English prisoners on Venus, she engages the privateer Daniel Fox, and his ship Touchstone, to get her Venus first. With only her wits and a banknote for five hundred pounds, she must try to arrange the release of Captain Singh, and Diana’s crew before their brutal new gaoler arrives.

The first part of Arabella and the Battle of Venus focuses on the voyage to the French colony from Mars. Accustomed to the polished and well-oiled operation aboard Diana, Arabella finds herself displeased with Touchstone’s more slovenly crew. Worse, Captain Fox’s navigation skills cannot hold a candle to her own, and Arabella is desperate to reach Venus as quickly as possible. But Captain Fox will only agree to try her course if Arabella will wager a kiss and a private dinner if her plan does not bring them to Venus faster than his planned route. As in Arabella of Mars, Levine focuses a great deal of attention on the sailing aspects of the narrative, creating an atmosphere that might be best described as Patrick O’Brian in space.

The second act is more about characters and intrigue, as Arabella arrives at Venus, only to have nothing go as planned. Adrift on a foreign planet, where she does not speak the languages or know the customs, and where her English banknote is no good, Arabella finds she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Not only is Diana’s crew being held prisoner, they are being forced to work in a labour camp that is contributing to the creation of a new weapon that may alter the course of the war. If Arabella can discover the details, she may be able to save English dominance of the skies from Napoleon’s rapacious appetite for conquest, but she cannot see how she will manage that while also getting two ships and their crews off a blockaded planet.

Fans of the dashing and honourable Captain Prakash Singh may be disappointed with his small role, especially in the first part of this narrative. Instead, Arabella makes her way to Venus in the company of the also handsome but not precisely honourable privateer and gambling friend Daniel Fox. With her chaperone Lady Corey constantly questioning Arabella’s choice of fiancé, and Captain Fox perpetually trying to get Arabella to gamble her favours in exchange for his cooperation, Arabella is unaccountably intrigued by the scoundrel. Even after her arrival on Venus, Captain Singh practically sabotages his own cause, refusing to entertain Arabella’s escape plans, or include her in his own doings. Unfortunately, Captain Fox looks set to make a prominent appearance in the third installment of the series.

Some quibbles about the romantic subplot notwithstanding, Arabella and the Battle of Venus is an excellent second outing in Levine’s original series, which combines adventure and intrigue with alternate history, as well as considerable character growth for the heroine. I’m thoroughly looking forward to the trilogy’s conclusion, which will hopefully be released next year.

You might also like The Silvered by Tanya Huff

Steampunk, Young Adult

Book Talk: Etiquette and Espionage


A book talk is a short presentation that is neither a book review or a plot summary. Rather, the intention is to entice the potential reader with just enough information to convince them to pick up the book. This talk was designed to be given to a classroom of high school students.

Good morning young ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard our airship, home to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. And it is our pleasure to host the young men of Bunson and Lacroix’s Boys Polytechnique for Evil Geniuses.  I am Professor Lefoux, Deputy Headmistress. Now, some of you, like Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, are legacy students. But for those of you, like Miss Temminnick, who are covert recruits, I would like to impress upon you that this is not your average finishing school. Do not mistake me; by the time you are finished, your curtsies will be impeccable, and your etiquette unparalleled. But we shall also be training you in the fine art of espionage. As young ladies of quality, you will be uniquely positioned to manipulate London society.

Some of you will find yourselves in service to Queen and Country, be it Queen Victoria’s Shadow Council, or the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. Many of you will go as drones to the vampire hives, or clavigers to the werewolf packs. If you are technically minded, or perhaps do not care for the supernatural, you might even throw in with the Picklemen. One day you shall have to declare your loyalties, but for now, please be assured we will prepare you for all of these eventualities.

As for the gentlemen of Bunson and Lacroix’s, welcome. I hope you are enjoying your sojourn aboard our dirigible. I know that as budding young inventors and evil geniuses, you will take this opportunity to study such a unique example of modern air transportation. And I am pleased to announce that after tea, I have arranged a special tour of the boiler rooms and furnaces with one of our sooties, Mr. Phineas Crow. This section is, at all other times, off limits to students.

But a word of caution before we begin our social event. Do not get too comfortable there next to Miss Temminnick, young Lord Mersey. I would remind you all that the relationship between our two schools exists purely for the purpose of practicing social graces. There will be no fraternizing. Am I understood?

Excellent. Now, I understand you may have experienced some excitement on your journey here today. I will not abide wild tales about flywaymen, or stolen prototype devices, or any other such nonsense. I urge you to leave this matter to your professors, and focus on your studies. If you do not apply yourselves, you may find yourselves in the shoes of Miss Pelouse, who has been sent down to rejoin the debut class after failing to pass her finishing exam. Take care not to repeat her mistakes.

And now, I believe tea is served. Do mind your table manners.


Also by Gail Carriger:

Prudence (Young Adult)


More Steampunk:

Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson


Fiction, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk


Cover image for Soulless by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9780316056632

“Miss Tarabotti was not one of life’s milk-water misses–in fact, quite the opposite. Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice–that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation.” 

At twenty-six, Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster. With a dead Italian father, and a rather plain visage, she has made her peace with that. More troublesome is her soulless state, a fact known only to London’s supernatural denizens, including vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, no one informed the newly made vampire who attacked her at the Duchess of Snodgrove’s ball that touching a soulless would steal away his supernatural abilities. When Alexia kills her attacker, she finds herself under investigation by Lord Maccon, head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and Queen Victoria’s deputy. But the investigation soon reveals that the attack on Alexia may have been merely the tip of a much bigger mystery.

I’m picking up Gail Carriger quite backwards, having started with her young adult Finishing School series, then Prudence, and now going back to the series that made her name, The Parasol Protectorate, beginning with Soulless. And it is a decidedly more adult series. It has all the wit and humour of Finishing School, but Alexia is not precisely a proper English spinster, and when she finds herself unusually attracted to the Scottish werewolf Lord Maccon, she is more forward than might be expected. And for his part, Lord Maccon isn’t at all bothered by her age, or her Italian complexion. And he seems to regard her unusual forwardness as an asset, even if it is sometimes rather vexing.

Soulless definitely has a good amount of romance mixed in, but it is also a mystery. The vampire that attacked Alexia smells of the Westminster hive, but no one there will admit to having made him. Meanwhile, Lord Maccon’s investigation reveals that rove vampires and loner werewolves have been disappearing for some time. And the incident seems to have brought renewed and unwelcome attention to Alexia’s soulless status. She longs to help solve the mystery, but is unable to convince Lord Maccon that BUR should give her an official position. Not only is she the subject of an investigation, but it would be completely unseemly to hire an unmarried lady of genteel birth. But she makes her own efforts, turning for counsel to her vampire friend, Lord Akeldama, who was also a fan favourite in the Finishing School series, but originated here in Soulless.

As I’ve come to expect from Carriger’s work, Soulless is a witty romp through an alternate, supernatural Victorian England, with an added bit of oomph in the romance department in comparison to the young adult works that introduced me to her oeuvre.

Fiction, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk, Young Adult

Arabella of Mars

Cover image for Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine by David D. Levine

ISBN 9780765382818

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. All quotes have been checked against a finished copy.

“Here she could exercise her mind in a way her mother, indeed all of English society, would never tolerate in a girl or even a grown woman. In these moments all shame at her continued deception fell away, replaced by anger at the opportunities denied her by her sex.”

Born and raised on Mars, Arabella Ashby find herself dragged by to Earth so that her mother can turn her into a proper English lady before it is too late, and she destroys her marriage prospects with her tomboyish behaviour. But when her home and family on Mars are threatened, Arabella disguises herself and takes a job as a captain’s boy aboard the Marsman Diana in order to get herself home as soon as possible. But the journey between Earth and Mars is not without its dangers, and every delay threatens the timeliness of her news, or the revelation of her secret. And there is no time to waste, for the life of a family member hangs in the balance. (Aside: Levine summarized the plot of his novel in a filked version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Alexander Hamilton”. You can watch it on my YouTube channel!)

David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016
David D. Levine at University Bookstore Seattle, July 29, 2016

David D. Levine sets Arabella of Mars in an alternate Regency England that follows from a history in which Captain William Kidd set out for the first expedition to Mars in the 1600s. This is a universe in which the space between planets is occupied not by a vacuum, but by air. Speaking at University Bookstore Seattle on July 29, Levine readily admitted this was a fantastic alteration. In reality the physics of such a universe would send the planets spiraling into the sun. Two hundred years later, the English colonial presence on Mars is well-established, and children such as Arabella and her brother Michael are Martian-born humans who have never seen their home planet of Earth, or their parents’ native England.

Mary Jo Putney’s blurb on the back of the book describes this novel as the “delicious love child of Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and Jules Verne.” The first comparison is perhaps the biggest stretch. The book is set during the Regency period, and an entailed estate does feature prominently in the plot, but in tone and action, there is really no similarity. But the action is reminiscent of Verne, and Levine credits the inspiration for the airship aspects of the novel to O’Brian’s books, and a great deal of attention is lavished on the sailing and navigation parts of the tale. Additional research was done at the  Musée national de la Marine, in Paris.

Levine employs an old sci-fi version of Mars that predates our current knowledge of the red planet. It is home to Martians, though much of the story is set among humans, and aboard Diana in transit between Earth and Mars. Levine still dedicates a decent amount of attention to the development of his Martians. They are made up of different groups and have a variety of languages. Many have learned English, but few humans return the favour. Levine also reverses the genders, casting the Martian females as hunters and warriors, though most English refuse to perceive the difference, and will hire female Martians only as nannies. It is as such we meet the main Martian character, Khema, who was tutor and caretaker to Arabella and Michael. While Levine does some good development of Martians as a whole, Khema is unfortunately the only individuated Martian character, and one of few named.

Levine is best known as a writer of short stories, and Arabella of Mars is his debut novel. He describes Arabella herself as having burst from his brow fully formed and armoured, already entirely herself. He immediately recognized it as a novel-sized idea, but thought it might be Young Adult. Tor decided to publish it as adult fiction, but with no sex and all curse words dashed out Regency-style, it has good crossover appeal for younger readers. Arabella of Mars was written to stand alone, but with the possibility for sequels. Tor has purchased two more books, and the second Arabella adventure is due out next year. It will see Arabella take passage from Mars to Venus aboard Captain Daniel Fox’s ship Touchstone.


Cover image for The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato You might also like The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

Fiction, Steampunk, Young Adult


Cover image for Prudence by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 978-0-316-21225-0

“Rue had no idea if Bombay was typical of the colonies, but it was not typical of any city she’d ever visited before. Which she guessed meant the onus was on her to change what she considered city-like.”

When Lady Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama receives a dirigible and a mission from her father, Lord Akeldama, she gathers a crew of friends to man her ship, and sets off for India. Ostensibly on the trail of some rare tea plants, she soon discovers that the situation in the British colony is more delicate and complicated than she ever could have guessed. Fortunately Rue is no ordinary girl, but a metanatural, able to borrow the supernatural abilities of others through touch, without acquiring any of their weaknesses. Along with her best friend, the Honourable Miss Primrose Tunstell, and Prim’s brother, Professor Percival Tunstell, and a charming Frenchman by the name of Mr. Quesnel Lefoux, Rue sets out to normalize supernatural relations in India.

As fans of Gail Carriger may have noticed from the names above, the characters in Prudence are largely descendants of those who appeared in The Parasol Protectorate and Finishing School series. Having only read the Finishing School series myself, I know I definitely missed a few references, and understandably ran into a few spoilers for The Parasol Protectorate. Some of the old characters do appear briefly on page, but once Rue and her crew are off to India, the story focuses on the next generation and their adventures. The group develops its own dynamic, though there are decided similarities to previous books. Prim and Percy, for example, are quite like Carriger’s other sibling pair, Dimity and Pillover. It is also quite delightful to watch Rue and Quesnel try to pretend their relationship is strictly business.

Prudence is largely typical of a Carriger novel. There is witty banter, larking adventures, and lots of tea and comedies of manners. Her romantic scenes are playful and perfectly paced. But Prudence really falls down when the protagonists arrive in India, but Indian people fail to arrive in the story as fully fleshed characters. Not a single Indian character is named in the book, even the few who play important roles. The only significant character of colour is Miss Sekhmet, a mysterious woman from Africa. While I expect she will receive further development as the series goes on, in Prudence her main traits are being beautiful and mysterious. There is also an absolutely cringe-worthy scene in which Rue is mistaken for a goddess by an Indian man, and he throws himself out of a tram to escape her wrath (Carriger conveniently provides him with a parachute in an effort to preserve the already misguided humour of the scene). Prudence isn’t precisely pro-colonial; there are definitely criticisms, and the characters encounter some situations that force them to re-evaluate their beliefs and assumptions, but overall Carriger’s treatment of India rubs the wrong way.

Fiction, Short Stories, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk

Final Flight

Cover image for Final Flight by Beth Catoby Beth Cato

eISBN 9780062411280

“This is sedition, Mr. Hue. We’re not merely subverting the command of a Clockwork Dagger, but Queen Evandia herself. Recollect the so-called traitors we often see hanged near ports. Many of them die on hearsay alone. How will we be judged?”

No sooner had he rid himself and his airship of the troublesome medician Octavia Butler, and the spy Alonzo Garrett, Captain Hue finds the Argus commandeered by the Caskentian government for a secret mission. With Clockwork Daggers and royal soldiers aboard the ship, Captain Hue finds that he has no choice but to fly towards the Waste, bearing a cargo that could change the course of the war. But the further they fly, the less certain he is they will ever return, and worse, the Crown seems to have designs on his bright young son, Sheridan.

Final Flight marks a brief return to some minor characters who appeared in The Clockwork Dagger, and tells the story of a man forced to choose between his loyalty and the lives his obedience may cost. His son, his crew, and the people of the Waste will all pay the price of whatever decision he makes when he realizes the terrible cargo that has been brought aboard his ship. Worse, its presence on board necessitates the removal of the Argus’ aether magi, lest the artifact drive them mad, and so the ship is flying blind into dangerous territory. The calculating Mrs. Starling is also paying an unusual amount of attention to Captain Hue’s fourteen-year-old son, Sheridan, a canny young man who is only a year away from being eligible for conscription into military service. One step out of line could cost Captain Hue the person he loves most, making the stakes of this little adventure extremely high.

The Kindle edition is rather shorter than you initially expect; the second half of the file is a tantalizing sneak peek at Beth Cato’s upcoming novel, Breath of Earth, which is about a lone female geomancer on the eve of San Francisco’s catastrophic 1906 earthquake. But that minor disappointment aside, Final Flight provides one more adventure-filled glimpse into the world of The Clockwork Dagger.


Cover image for Wings of Sorrow and Bone You might also like Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato

Fiction, Novella, Speculative Fiction, Steampunk

Wings of Sorrow and Bone

Cover image for Wings of Sorrow and Boneby Beth Cato

ISBN 9780062411266

Disclaimer: While I have previously received free copies of Cato’s works through the Harper Voyager Super Reader program, I purchased my own copy of this title.

“For a dead man, he was still terribly loud in her memory.”

Having escaped the clutches of her abusive father with the help of Octavia Leander in the events of The Clockwork Crown, Rivka finds herself trying to start a new life in Tamarania under the watchful eye of her grandmother, the formidable Mrs. Viola Stout. Rivka dreams of designing and constructing mechanical devices, but her lack of formal education, folksy Caskentian accent, and cleft palate all make it extremely unlikely that she will find an appropriate apprenticeship in Tamarania. When she wheedles her way into the workshop of the wealthy and powerful Mr. Cody, she hopes to find a way to gain some knowledge and work experience as a machinist, but instead she discovers that Cody’s famous chimeras are the result of a brutal and inhumane process that causes terrible suffering. Forming an uneasy alliance with Alonzo Garrett’s manipulative sister, Tatiana, the two girls attempt to square their career ambitions with the unsavoury work going on in Cody’s laboratory.

Wings of Sorrow and Bone is a novella set in the world of Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger books. It takes place after the fact, but can be read alone, though there are some spoilers for the events of the preceding novels; Cato struggles a bit to strike the right balance between bringing new readers into an existing world, and telling a new story.  Two minor characters from the main duology—Viola Stout’s granddaughter, Rivka, and Alonzo Garrett’s sister, Tatiana—assume the roles of protagonists, becoming further fleshed out in the process. Wings of Sorrow and Bone has no romantic subplot, and focuses largely on the career aspirations and tentative friendship of two teenage girls, both of which are challenged when the girls encounter some of the darker realities of the professional world they hope to enter into. Mrs. Stout serves as a mentor and ally, but largely remains on the sidelines as the two girls try to find their way.

The world Cato developed in the Clockwork Dagger duology blends magic and science in unique and imaginative ways, but Wings of Sorrow and Bone deals with one of the more disturbing applications of this unusual mix. In Tamarania, a nation that largely reveres science and disdains magic, the politician Mr. Cody combines the two to create chimeras, unnatural creatures forged together from mechanical components and living parts taken from gremlins. The chimeras then fight in an arena, serving as a popular form of entertainment. Since gremlins are largely regarded as pests, no one protests this misuse. In The Clockwork Crown, protagonists Octavia and Alonzo become unwillingly complicit in this outrage when Alonzo bargains his piloting skills for a favour from Mr. Cody. However, dealing with it lies outside the scope of their main mission, and Cody’s depredations continue on. This, then, is social science fiction in the old tradition, using a fantasy world as an allegory for real-life ills, in this case, animal rights abuses. It falls to Rivka, Tatiana, and Mrs. Stout to try to find a way to put a stop to the work of a rich and powerful man, whose inventions are popular form of mass entertainment. Given Cody’s relative power, and the short length of this novella, I didn’t see how Cato was going to bring this plotline off in a believable fashion, but she manages it with astonishing aplomb, and a nod to one of my favourite childhood books, no less.


Cover image for Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger You might also like Manners and Mutiny by Gail Carriger

Fantasy, Fiction, Steampunk, Top Picks, Young Adult

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

ISBN 9780316013697

Cover image for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman AlexieIt only took me eight years to get around to reading Sherman Alexie’s popular young adult novel about a Native American boy who decides to leave the Spokane reservation to attend school in a nearby town that is predominantly white. Junior hopes that the education he receives there will help him achieve his dream of becoming an artist, but he struggles to be accepted by his classmates, and also faces rejection by members of his tribe who believe he has betrayed them. Alexie uses dark humour to cope with the tragedy Junior faces in his life, and Ellen Forney’s accompanying illustrations are just as poignant as the prose, but more concise. I actually read this book twice this year, once at the insistence of a friend (thanks, Amelia!) and then again with my book club.

Categories: Young Adult 


ISBN 9780307455925

Cover image for Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieBy contrast, it only took me two years to get around to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critically acclaimed novel about a young Nigerian couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, who are separated when Ifemelu goes to the United States for college, and Obinze is unable to get a visa to join her. With America’s borders closed to him, Obinze finds himself in living London on an expired tourist visa, and working as an undocumented immigrant under other peoples’ names. Fifteen years later, Ifemelu decides to return home to Nigeria, though she is unsure if she wants to see Obinze, who is now married. Americanah is a big, sweeping novel that combines cultural criticism with the story of star-crossed lovers. During her time in America, Ifemelu explores the differences between the experiences of a Black African woman, and those of African Americans, and is forced to confront American beauty standards, particularly as they concern hair. When she finally returns home, she must face the fact that she has been changed by America, and that Nigeria has changed in her absence.

Carry On

ISBN 9781250049551

Cover image for Carry On by Rainbow RowellWhen it comes to books I read this year that were just pure fun, Carry On is at the top of the list. Spinning off from her 2013 novel, Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell brings to life the world of Simon Snow, formerly only a story-within-a-story in Fangirl. Simon is the Chosen One, supposedly destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum, but as he enters his final year at Watford School of Magicks, he is more concerned about the fact that his roommate–the devious vampire Baz–hasn’t turned up for classes, and is probably out there somewhere plotting to kill him. Carry On features a playful magical system built on the power language gains through puns, word play, literary references, and other usages tap into our common imagination. Rowell also riffs on familiar themes and tropes from Chosen One stories, and generally has a rollicking good time.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult 

Everything I Never Told You

ISBN 9780143127550

Cover image for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgThis heartbreaking novel of family tragedy by Celeste Ng topped a lot of last year’s best fiction lists, and for good reason as I finally discovered. When sixteen-year-old Lydia’s body is found in the lake of a small Ohio college town in the spring of 1977, the rug is pulled out from under the Lee family. James and Marilyn’s mixed race marriage is a delicate balancing act, and their children Nath and Hannah struggle with being among the only non-white residents of their small town.  Each member of the family takes a turn narrating, and each understands something about Lydia that the others have missed, but alone none of them can quite understand how she could have died.  As Celeste Ng peels back the layers one at a time, her novel becomes an autopsy of a family in the aftermath of the death of one of its members.

Manners and Mutiny

ISBN 9780316190282

Cover image for Manners and Mutiny by Gail CarrigerAlthough I’ve singled out Manners and Mutiny here, honestly this is a tip of the hat to Gail Carriger’s entire “Finishing School” series, of which Manners and Mutiny is the fourth and final volume. I devoured the first three volumes as audiobooks, delightfully narrated by Moira Quirk, whose accents and voices bring Carriger’s witty banner to life. However, I read Manners and Mutiny in dead-tree form, and can confirm that the books themselves are just as much fun. Sophronia Temminnick’s mother deplores her daughter’s adventuresome behaviour, and decides to send her off to finishing school to become more ladylike. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Temminnick, Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is no ordinary finishing school; in addition to learning etiquette and charm, Sophronia also receives a first class education in espionage aboard a wandering dirigible. At the school, Sophronia makes friends and enemies, and becomes versed in the supernatural politics of a Victorian England populated by werewolves and vampires as well as mechanical servants. In Manners and Mutiny, Sophronia is called on to foil a Pickleman plot to take over the nation’s mechanicals. She must also make a choice between Soap and Felix, two very different boys who have been vying for her affections.

Categories: Young Adult, Steampunk


That’s it for me! What were your favourite fiction reads this year?