Maybe it’s the wedding of Price William and Kate Middleton that brings it to mind but it seems as if Victorian England is all the rage in fiction. What might have started with Sherlock Holmes in 1887 has morphed into young adult books, mysteries and a branch of science fiction called steampunk that together deliver an apocalyptic message finely tuned for our times.
Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet heads the list of YA books that bring London of the late 1800s to life. The lead figure in The Ruby in the Smoke and the novels that follow is a brave 16-year-old who surmounts her fears to discover the fate of her father, and her own strength.
Pullman populates his London of 1872 with finery and fops, dirt and decay. For every noble move by the Baker Street Irregulars who support Sally the underworld launches a counter offensive that would discourage all but the most resourceful. The author’s voice rings of an authentic England, from descriptions to slang to the narrator’s comforting address to the reader.
Pullman (The Golden Compass) has written other novels with resolute female characters but the Lockhart books stand as some of his best, a series that adults as well as teens will find refreshingly current.
Will Thomas could have been channeling Pullman in the first of his Barker and Llewelyn mysteries, Some Danger Involved, set 12 years later. Thomas’ characters, a private detective who calls himself an enquiry agent and his assistant, investigate the source of anti-Semitic activities and in the process provide readers with a swift course in forgotten history. As with Pullman’s work, the interest lies in a fast romp by sympathetic characters through a dark and secret world, an alternate reality that seems as real as our own.
Then there’s the wildly successful Anne Perry, who has penned two Victorian series, one featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt and a second starring investigator William Monk. Both evoke the class distinctions as well as the crimes of the era.
Steampunk pushes reality in an alternate direction. A subgenre of science fiction steampunk evokes an era where steam power, dirigibles and analog devices rule. One of the earliest examples is the 1990 novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. If you saw the 2009 movie version of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, you have an idea of the visuals common to steampunk literature.
Much as its cousin cyberpunk mashes the exotic with the familiar to jolt readers out of time and place, steampunk creates an alternate history that can be both intriguing and chilling. As do many of the writers who set their stories in that era. They contrast the veneer of civility with its morally corrosive underside to create a dystopia that any post-9/11 reader can appreciate.
Let’s hope that’s not the case with the newest royal couple.