I have a love/hate relationships with anthologies.
Scratch that--I have a tolerate/hate relationship with anthologies. I love-love-love shared world anthologies like Irregulars and Hell Cop, where the writers are often playing in the same world (and may even involve the same characters or overlapping storylines.) I find that method very inventive.
From my experience, most anthologies are often times a very mixed-bag of stories that are loosely tied via a theme, but otherwise, can be very different in quality and style, sometimes in a jarring way that can make finishing an anthology a real labor.
That, and for personal reader taste, I tend to steer towards longer, novel-length works, so short stories are less appealing for me.
Even with my mixed feelings of anthologies, I am a big fan of m/m fantasy, and love-love-love steampunk, so this anthology’s theme’s seemed right up my alley. Added to that some writers that are on my radar, and I went full steam ahead into it. (yuk yuk yuk)
And overall, I thought it was pretty good. There were some definite stand-out stories for me, as well a few that I connected less to.
I’m going to review the stories not in the order that they are in the book, but in the order that I liked them.
The Clockwork Nightingale's Song by Amy Rae Durreson
4.5 stars – A wonderful story about mechanic Shem, who works in what sounds like an amazing mechanical garden in London that “blooms” at night to entertain wealthy guests who wander through its wonders. When one of the garden’s mechanical nightingales stops working, he finds himself facing Gabriel, the quirky aristocratic inventor who forcibly invites Shem into his townhouse workshop as they figure out how to repair the nightingale’s mechanical heart.
The story was entrancing, and it was easy to fall for Shem, who guarded his apprentices so sternly so they wouldn’t be taken advantage of by handsy lords in the night gardens. Fortunately for him, Gabriel takes on the task of working through Shem’s tightly locked heart. My only down point was that entrance of some angst with a past character, and that entrance felt a little clumsy compared to the rest of the story. (Unless the author is planning on returning to this world to give that character an HEA. Maybe? Y/Y?)
Overall though, I LOVED this story, and now after this and Durreson’s freebie fantasy novella The Lodestar of Ys, this author is on my auto-buy list. I can’t wait to read a novel-length fantasy work by her.
Caress by Eli Easton
4.5 stars – Wonderful story about a young engineer who is forced to use his amazing skills to make weapons for the military, and there he is asked to create prosthetic hands for an injured soldier, with both knowing that the military will use those new, specially-powered hands as weapons on the battlefield.
Really well done and very imaginative. It was easy to get swept up in Tinker’s story, and feel his hidden desires for Colin, the solider he is helping, and feel the dread that followed them both as the reality of these new hands became clearer. It was a great read.
My only down point was that I thought there would be a little bit more with Tinker’s mechanical heart, but that’s a small note. Overall, I loved this story. (And I vote that Easton dives into more fantasy work. I would totally read it!)
The Clockwork Heart by Kim Fielding
4 stars – A fun story about a socially awkward loner who feels more at ease with the mechanical pieces that he repairs than dealing with people. When he stumbles upon the beaten remains of a golem/automaton, his curiosity wins out and he brings the golem home and tries to repair him. To his surprise, the golem is still very much animated.
I enjoyed this story a lot, especially the energy that Talon brought to it, and how he inadvertently drew Dante out of his shell. I also dig Fielding’s penchant for developing love stories with “untraditional” heroes (e.g. Brute)--Dante is very much a loner, and has a hard time relating to others, and Talon is sweet and eager, but ashamed of his damaged skull and is still recovering from the poor treatment that he experienced from the his previous owner. Their blooming relationship and the way they fit together was very sweet to read.
I enjoyed this one a lot, and would definitely be interested in reading more of these characters.
Untouchable by Layla M. Wier
4 stars – Who is this writer and why isn’t she writing more prohibition-era cops & bootleggers m/m?? Because after this story, I totally want more!
It’s 1930, and George is a federal agent tasked with partnering (and monitoring) lone wolf agent Rawson who is trying to track down a group of booze smugglers. Rawson’s quiet dedication to his job, along with the steady ticking of his clockwork heart, burrow under George’s reservations, and soon he starts to question his mission.
The story is light on romance, but overall was a very fun and enjoyable read, and reminded me of Charlie Cochet’s style of fun historicals. (e.g. Roses in the Devil's Garden) I could have read a longer story with these characters, and I hope Weir tries s historical/fantasy again, because I would totally check it out. Great read and a nice surprise by an author I’ve never read before.
Ace of Hearts by Mary Pletsch
4 stars – A fun wartime adventure story set in a fantasy AU world with something similar to WW1 going on. William is a mechanic for the “heavier than air” squadron (air planes), which are a newer invention, but less popular than dirigibles, etc. Due to a disability, William is left mostly on the ground, repairing and inventing to improve the machines. When a handsome dirigible flying ace joins the squadron, he’s faced suddenly with the idea that maybe he shouldn’t be burying all his feelings, and maybe he should fight for what he really wants.
This story’s focus is on adventure, with a light romance subplot that’s more at the catalyst stage, but I thought the author did a great job on all the details, especially the ones involved flying the planes. A fun, fast-paced story with appealing characters.
Five to One by Angelia Sparrow
3.5 stars – A sweet story about two young friends who enter a contest to create a vehicle that will cross the United States. While building the machine, they realize that their closeness is much more than friendship.
Sparrow’s writing was smooth, but I wished the story had some more meat to the plot. I wouldn’t have minded more story action over sexy-time action in this one.
Spindle and Bell by Augusta Li
3.5 stars – A nice story set in an AU London where a young street rat thief comes to meet (and fall for) a wealthy young man who has been infected with a TB-like plague, and through their relationship, our thief begins to choose a better life for himself
Probably the biggest thing for me with this story was that I liked it. I had only tried one other work by this author, and had abandoned it pretty early due to not being able to mesh with the author’s writing style. I went into this story with some dread, so was pleasantly surprised to find the author’s style now leans less on descriptive nouns and has a much easier flow.
It’s a nice read, although I would add that the “non-traditional” romance happy ending might be a surprise for some, Although it was easy to forecast, I still kept waiting-waiting-waiting for the “traditional” ending to come in, like, “Maybe all the signs are wrong, or something will change…” But no, so it’s a nice HFN ending for one MC. The connection for the reader is Spindle’s happiness and ability to live his life free of addiction and abuse, and how love inspired that change, rather than a regular “love story” ending. (I won’t lie. I was a little disappointed.)
On the bright side, I appreciate that this story gave me a second look at an author. I will go into her next work feeling much more buoyant.
Swiftsilver by Bell Ellis
3.5 stars – A nice read about an upper-class inventor who crashes into the life of a young apprentice alchemist, and soon they find themselves partnering on many new experiments, as well as falling for each other.
Both Thio (the impetuous inventor) and Seamus (the poor Cinderfella of an alchemist) were fun to read about, especially as they voice their feelings more (and move their experiments to the bedroom.) An enjoyable story, although the pacing for me started to slip after the “big escape” scene as Thio brings Seamus home with him. After that, it moves into more relationship stuff, but it was a slower read for me from then on.
What I did like was that both Switchsilver and Weir’s Untouchable were the last two stories of the collection, and I’m always suspicious of the last stories in an anthology, like that’s where the dregs will be, and both these stories were fun, so it was nice to see consistency across the volume, as opposed to loading up the good stuff early.
The Galatea's Captain by Anka Grace
3.5 stars – A nice story about a visiting philosopher who meets an enigmatic ship captain who is also an inventor, and who has agreed to build the philosopher a prosthetic foot to replace the one he lost in an injury.
A nice reading, although I found the writing a little over-written. The style was there to sound older, but it felt a little burdensome. The characters were nice, although I didn’t feel a deep connection to what was going on between them.
Screws by R.D. Hero
3 stars – A fun read about a rich young engineer wannabe who is forced to work in a screw factory as punishment by his father. There’s he gets used to hard work, and also meets a handsome factory worker that catches his eye.
A quick read. Probably for me, it just felt more lust-based than romance, compared to the other stories. Which is fine, but I connected less to it. I did like how Hank stood up to elitist Julius and spelled out to him how important screws are to inventions.
The Golden Goose by Mark Lesney
2.5 – This story follows a gentleman thief in Victorian era London after an unsuccessful robbery who then finds himself rescuing an anti-capitalist inventor from getting assaulted in his backyard. The thief is then swept up along in the inventor’s plans.
Probably the most telling point for this short story for me was that I stopped in the middle and started and finished another novel and then went back and finished the short story. I’m sure that didn’t help my connection to the story, but it was my disconnection to the characters from the start that had kicked me out. I’m normally fine with first person POV narrators, but this one felt somewhat jarring compared to the other stories, I didn’t really like either of the MCs, and I ended up skimming to finish. The writing was overall fine so it could work better for you.
Overall, I think this is a pretty good anthology with some really great stories. For fans of fantasy m/m, and especially for fans of m/m steampunk, I think you’ll find quite a few stories here that will catch your fancy.
It’s also a very solid read, at over 120,000+ words/340+ pages, so each of the eleven stories is pretty sizeable.
One thing I wondered about was that if the authors were given a check-list of things to include because there was quite a bit of overlap in themes, and I’m not sure if that’s just linked to steampunk in general. Over the volume, we had at least two clockwork hearts, a few other mechanical limbs and body parts, and a whole flying machine full of backyard inventors. In that way, there was some danger of repetition, and it made me wonder if it was linked to the call for submissions, or if it’s just the common tropes of the genre.
I was hoping for a bit more steampunk adventure, air pirates, etc, but much of this volume focused on quiet steampunk, and the love that can bloom between two people (or a person and an automaton.)
(Funnily enough, one of my favorite m/m steampunk stories is in another Dreamspinner anthology--”The Wings of Lir,” a steampunk (with air pirates!) story in the pirate anthology Cross Bones. I have not gotten my fill of steampunk air pirates m/m romance adventures…)
Steamed Up is a fun read, and I’m glad I got it. For m/m fantasy fans, it’s definitely worth a look. (And you may find a new favorite author.)
Special shout-out to the cover artist. I think the cover is pretty rad.