Sunday, November 20, 2011

Shifting Steam ed Lorna Hinson

Shifting Steam
Editor: Lorna Hinson
Genre: steampunk/paranormal
Length: 209 pages / 57800 words

Steampunk and shifters? Do they even go together? Of course they do. Steampunk is all about the possible, the magical and the otherworldly. Shapeshifters are all about bending the idea of humanity into new shapes. Combine them, and you get Shifting Steam.

The stories in Shifting Steam pave the way for a magical journey through space and time to alternate realities, where anything is possible. From dragons to birds, from Victorian era expositions to secret laboratories, these stories explore what happens when man meets beast in a world of airship captains and fantastic creatures. Whether it’s a Jekyll and Hyde style beast, a wolfman who would rather not be a wolf, or a man who wishes he could fly, every kind of creature gets its day in the steampunk sun. Step into the world of Shifting Steam and let it transport you to a sexy, fantastical new universe.

Shifting Steam features stories from authors Rowan Benjamin, Missouri Dalton, Ekaterina Morris, Lydia Nyx, M Raiya, Lynn Townsend and Emory Vargas.

This is a varied collection of stories, ranging from clunky to fine.


Shadow of Kenfig by Lynn Townsend

The story leads off in a very unusual social club over a game of cards. There's a substantial cast, most of whom become irrelevant as the story progresses, though they are described in enough detail that I believe this to be one story in a series. The shifters are gwren, or wolves, much feared but not entirely shunned, although the use of real silver at table tends to weed them out as social acquaintances. The story has an authentic feel of social snobbery and notions of honor – a huge debt at the card table can force a man to do what he might not do otherwise. The gwr-infected Seth needs the gwr expert Dr. Poindexter Fitzhugh's help to learn about and possibly reverse his condition, and while he could have just asked, the card game set up was more interesting.

The evolution of the relationship is extremely abrupt: they go from the sparring of antagonists to protestations of eternal protection in the middle of a painful scientific experiment. It really read as if several pages of development had been accidentally left out, but I didn't find the breaks in the text to account for it. It was as if the damage each had taken and the mere knowledge of each other's sexual orientation was adequate to vault to "forever." Unfortunately, this, one of the more interesting plot elements being told to another character rather than dramatized, and wondering what the rest of the cast had to do with anything, interfered with an otherwise entertaining read.

The Cormorant by Emory Vargas

Miles become obsessed with possible supernatural creatures in the sea, a result of a near drowning as a child. His memory of a cormorant saving him from drowning drives his life and career choices. Another brush with death brings the cormorant again to him, for a brief encounter that might have been a dream, if Anahu had not left a sign of his presence. The steampunk elements are secondary to the story, but the shifter and the man's obsession are well drawn. No HEA, but a memory of a magical interlude that Miles could hope to find again.

The Shores of Loch Mor by Missouri Dalton

This story, with its oscillating POVs, was the most problematical for me. Every few hundred words we are propelled into the other character's head. The story unfolds after the insta-love befalls Carwyn, who is a shape-shifting fae, a puca. He follows the object of his desires, Felix, into town, to woo and win him. Felix, with secrets of his own, is an extremely self-centered jerk, which not only explains his secrets perfectly, but should make him grateful that the Mist-folk fall in love very abruptly and with no regard for the worthiness of the love-object.

Time frame and even world are a little misty here; it feels Elizabethan, even mentioning a local playwright as "William." Echoes of "Midsummer's Night Dream" and "Romeo and Juliet" crop up here and there, as does an unfortunate ring of "Othello." Casual interest becomes insta-love becomes a very heart-felt "you disgust me," becomes "oh I adore you after all." Between the ping-pong POVs and the ping-pong attitudes, this story feels very jerky.

Origin by M Raiya

This story has some overlap from the Notice universe – a dragon shifter and his knightly lover take on a strange creature in a Dickensian but steampunked Liverpool. This is an established couple's story, where Wells and Justin have to confront not only the creature but a magic-using engineer who has some really stomach churning notions of expedience, and their own longing for the days when life was simpler.

This story used the then-infant science of paleontology and mentions the novelty and impact of Darwin's Origin of Species, which I thought was a nice touch, since they were actual developments of the time with serious philosophical fall-out.

Nine and Fifty Swans by Rowan Benjamin

This is a lovely melding of the Victorian sensibility, advanced engineering, and shifter nature. Instead of shifters being hidden denizens of the world, they live openly and even have careers based on their shifting. All swans belong to the queen, even swan shifters, who form an elite fighting force with the new airships. Unfortunately, Swans have a few vulnerabilities, such as being very susceptible to cold while in human form, which requires the attention of a tailor/engineer to design their fighting kit. Sartorial Engineer Fanshawe and Wing Commander Cobbe have a rocky but charming courtship, as Fanshawe struggles to meet Cobbe as an equal. The author uses real swan attributes, adds a few details, and makes them well rounded. Each finds beauty in the other's form and self: there's no 'oh poor human' or 'oh poor shifter' here.

Mr. Black and the Expo by Lydia Nyx

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on the were-wolf idea, set against the Great Chicago Expo. Jack and Gerard have been travelling the world, each with their own mission, and are on the way home now. Some of the charm comes from the two prodding each other on how to behave in polite society; some of Jack's best moments happen on paws. His wolfiness has a known cause and a suspected cure; Gerard clearly loves him as shifter and fellow explorer. The affection between them is strong, the escapade dashing, and the resemblance to Gerard's beloved penny dreadfuls adds to the rollicking appeal. A nicely worked adventure.

Affliction by Ekaterina Morris

More of a Jekyll and Hyde transformation – the shifting monster is the experimenter himself, who risked all to cure a long-standing illness before he died, and now longs for death as a release from what he's become. With his unstable form and brilliant mind, Gideon Wright forms an unlikely alliance with chemist-fallen-to-opium addict and thief Harry Ashton, sent to steal the formulae by a criminal mastermind. This story has a lovely mix of steampunk engineering that works, Victorian chemistry and biology that works questionably as science and perfectly as plot, and a sweet relationship between the two MCs.


As with any anthology, there will be stories that work better than others. The difficulty of satisfying the shifter requirement, the steampunk requirement, the romance element, and the word count of this anthology's call may account for the extreme unevenness of the stories; some of the authors seem to be struggling to manage all the elements. Shadow of Kenfig needs triple the word count to do justice to everything currently packed in it; that would be a story I'd like to read. The Cormorant would work as well, maybe better, in a standard-tech universe.

The smoothest reads, Nine and Fifty Swans and Affliction, have no explicit sex, nor should they: the romance is clear as is.

The concept for this anthology is extremely ambitious; I applaud the authors for taking a swing at it. Rather than rate each story, the entire anthology should be awarded 3.5 marbles


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