For the last two years, I’ve made it my personal quest to discover and promote the most interesting specimens of steampunk fiction. Though there have been fewer published since the peak of the movement’s popularity around 2010, the demise of steampunk has been greatly exaggerated. One of the more interesting works I’ve encountered is Eric Asher’s Steamborn, published in 2016. This young adult novel combines adventure with the gimmicks and gadgetry we love so much.
Steamborn is one of those non-historical steampunk tales, set in Ancora, a quaint community that’s like an island of civilization in a dystopian world. We don’t know if this is another world or a future earth, but it’s populated by giant insects and arachnids. The humans have domesticated some of these as draft animals or food sources. Others are dangerous predators, the reason for the walls that surround the cities.
The main protagonist is Jacob, a teenager apprentice to an eccentric old inventor named Charles. Jacob’s a smart kid with a talent for innovation. In his off hours (and unbeknownst to his parents) he picks pockets for money to help pay for his sick father’s medicine. His friend Alice is a strong-willed and practical girl who tries to keep him out of trouble. The antagonists are less original, ranging from garden-variety bullies to corrupt civic leaders.
Asher’s world is an imaginative one with interesting and likable characters. Like many new writers, however, he has some trouble with pacing. After the initial excitement when Jacob narrowly evades being caught for stealing, we spend a few chapters on slice-of-life mode as the teenage heroes enjoy the town’s annual Festival and the ceremonies that mark their passage into adulthood.
Those idyllic times come to an abrupt end when the walls surrounding Ancora’s Lowlands district are suddenly breached and hordes of ravenous giant insects pour in. Even the gallant spider knights (yes, they’re knights who ride giant spiders) can’t stop them all. Manga and anime fans will recognize a similarity to Yasuko Kobayashi’s Attack on Titan, though not nearly as gory.
Jacob and Alice join the surviving lowlanders in fleeing to the upper-class Highlands, whose wall is still intact. Besides helping the injured, Jacob and Alice explore the forbidden catacombs beneath the city. Here they discover a suppressed history that reveals the dark past of their community and even kindly old Charles. From this point on, the book features lots of thrilling action, redeeming its earlier slow start.
I purchased the audiobook version, which is narrated by Saskia Maarleveld. Despite her exotic name, her voice is fairly generic. She’s a good albeit unexceptional narrator. This particular edition was a good deal in that it combines Steamborn with its two sequels, Steamforged and Steamsworn. I haven’t read these yet but I expect to be reviewing them at a later time.
Steamborn is a fun YA steampunk novel that readers of all ages can enjoy. My main advice is to have some patience with the early chapters as more exciting times are coming. I give it a rating of 4 out of 5 gears.