A perfect kind of alchemy

I first heard the term steampunk around six months ago on my Arvon historical fiction course. A member of our group was not only writing in this genre, but about to be published in it. I was intrigued. What on earth was steampunk? Turns out the answer isn’t all that simple.


Type it into Google and a bewildering array of websites greets you with thoughts on the matter. Essentially, the genre is a sub-set of science fiction that can blend any combination of fantasy, technology, romance, the paranormal, history and more. A steampunk novel is usually set in an alternate Victorian period with lots of very cool steam-powered technology. Officially, the genre has been around since the 1980s, but think Jules Verne, H.G Wells, Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker and you start to trace its roots.


Having learned all this, I realised I’d been watching and reading steampunk-influenced films and novels for some time: Guy Ritchie’s reworking of Sherlock Holmes, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, Back to the Future III (remember the flying steam-train?), for example, all incorporate steampunk elements.


The lady who put a name to a style I already loved is Liesel Schwarz. Liesel herself is much more articulate on the matter than I and says on her blog that her favourite description of steampunk is ‘the science of what could have been’. Her first novel A Conspiracy of Alchemists was published in February this year.







I know the old adage says 'don't judge a book by its cover', but I've always thought (at least with actual books) that you have to start somewhere. If I hadn’t met Liesel last year but saw this sitting on the shelf I would buy this book straight away.


Set in 1903 and starring dirigible-flying heroine Elle Chance and the mysterious Mr Marsh, the novel skips, or rather steams its way through some of the greatest capital cities of the Victorian/Edwardian era – Paris, London, Constantinople, Geneva, Vienna and Venice. It’s full of warlocks and absinthe fairies, alchemists (obviously) and nightwalkers. The dizzying array of technology includes the world’s first steam-powered gyrocopter and a cappuccino machine, of which the waiter on the Orient Express is particularly proud.


Elle – a New Woman in the true late 19th Century style – is caught up in this strange world when a box she is paid to fly from Paris to London is stolen. Before too long, she and Marsh are hotfooting their way through Europe in pursuit, as Light and Shadow battle for supremacy and Elle discovers that independence and responsibility aren’t always easy bedfellows. Elle herself is feisty and lovable while Marsh is infuriating and charming in classic Mr Darcy style.


It’s a magical novel in the truest sense of the word, with parts of it narrated by La Fée Verte (the Green Fairy) – the name Parisians gave absinthe – who recognises Elle's significance from the outset, with the words ‘I knew from the moment I saw her she would offer salvation.’


In creative writing classes, they often talk about ‘world building’ and being sure of the laws of that world. This, among other things, is one of the great strengths in Liesel’s writing. She sucks you in from the first page and spits you out at the other end, slightly dazed and confused as to why no-one around you is wearing corsets and goggles and talking about combobulator optic loupes – a jeweller’s eye glass to your or I, although I’ve just learned they’re still called loupes. Elle’s world is our world and it’s a beauty.


Liesel now has a punishing schedule ahead of her, with the second novel – The Clockwork Heart – due out later this year, the third being written as we speak and two more in the pipeline. But she still finds time to share her love of all things steampunk on Twitter, so if you’re not sure what it’s all about, want to impress your friends with obscure Victorian/Edwardian vocabulary or want to know what a steampunk motorbike or teapot looks like (very cool, is the answer) then you can follow her @Liesel_S.  


Oh and she LOVES cats. Which makes her alright by me.


You can also read an interview with her in The Independent.