This list is the first in a projected series of genre introduction lists intended to provide extensive overviews of various speculative subgenres. They aim to provide a resource for anyone who is interested in a particular subgenre but doesn’t quite know where to start.
While this list is by no means all-encompassing, we believe that if you read some of these books you will have a working knowledge of what steampunk is all about. If you read all of them, we will be forced to bow down and acknowledge you as being well on your way to becoming a steampunk virtuoso.
Steampunk is a hard subgenre to evaluate since the decision to classify a novel as steampunk often relates to aesthetics and may have little to do with the overall plot or feel of the novel. Thus, most steampunk novels fit into other genres as well, such as steampunk-romance, steampunk-adventure, steampunk-mystery, dark-steampunk and so on.
Therefore, when choosing books for this list, I have endeavored to explore all sides of steampunk by presenting a selection of books with varying styles, vastly different plots and different themes. I’ve also tried to achieve a balance between the old and the new, with approximately half the books on the list being classics of the genre and the other half being more contemporary works.
For simplicity’s sake, I did not included works that anticipated aspects of steampunk, such as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the various works of Jules Verne, which were actually written in the Victorian era. However, such works are definitely still worth a look for those interested in seeing how steampunk evolved over time.
Many of the books on the list are installments in longer series. Thus, in order to showcase a wider array of novels I have only included one book—usually the first in the series. No one needs my help to pick up the second book in a series if they enjoyed the first.
So, I hope you enjoy the list and find it helpful. Now let’s get reading and see what steampunky tales take your fancy!
|1.||The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
|This multi-award-winning novel is considered one of the founding works of the subgenre. It takes first place on our list as a perfect entry point into steampunk by virtue of being both a classic and a highly accessible work much loved by fantasy and science fiction fans. The Anubis Gates is a dazzlingly imaginative tale with an eccentric cast of characters including an English Professor, an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, poet Lord Byron, and a werewolf with serious hair growth issues.|
|2.||The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson (1995)
|The Diamond Age is technically set in the future and should therefore probably be classified as post-cyberpunk, however it takes place in a neo-Victorian society and contains many elements typical of steampunk. The ‘Primer’ itself is a remarkable interactive book intended to educate aristocratic young ladies. However, what happens if this knowledge falls not into the hands of its intended audience, but finds its way to a street urchin in the city’s slums? The winner of both the Hugo and Locus awards, The Diamond Age is almost prescribed reading for any speculative fiction fan and a must for anyone seeking a well-rounded steampunk ‘education.’|
|3.||The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)
|The Difference Engine is considered by many to be the foremost example of the steampunk subgenre and is therefore a must-read for any budding steampunk aficionado. The story takes place in an alternative 1855 London where not only is the industrial revolution is in full swing, but the computer age has begun over a century earlier after the invention of a revolutionary analytical engine by mathematician Charles Babbage.|
|4.||Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001)
|Another novel set in a neo-Victorian far future era, Mortal Engines is the first book in Reeve’s acclaimed quartet by the same name. A favorite for both young adult and older readers, it is set in a post-apocalyptic world complete with roaming ‘traction cities’ and a strict social class structure. Municipal Darwinism is the order of the day, with larger cities hunting down and consuming smaller settlements for their resources. The starting line says it all, really—”It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” A stunning tale of adventure, sinister plots and betrayal, Mortal Engines is possibly the most famous steampunk novel written in the last decade and begins what is considered by many to be one of the finest—if not the finest—steampunk series.|
|5.||Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter (1987)
|A classic by the very man who coined the term ‘steampunk,’ Infernal Devices tells the story of George Dower, an idle young gentleman who has inherited his father’s watchmaking business despite having little inclination for clockwork. George, however, is blissfully unaware of the full extent of his father’s creations. This novel of Victorian London features automatons, fish people, time travel and sexual intrigue.|
|6.||Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (2009)
|Boneshaker is the first book in the award winning series The Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest, the ‘high priestess of steampunk’. Set in an alternative 1880’s America in the midst of civil war, Boneshaker is an engrossing and ultimately human tale involving a son’s quest to clear his father’s name and a mother’s quest to protect her son. Successfully combining elements of fantasy, science fiction, history and horror, The Clockwork Century series comes highly recommended. Sounds good? You can check out our review of Boneshaker here. Oh, and did I mention that it has zombies?|
|7.||Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (2000)
|Another award winner, Perdido Street Station is set in the strange world of Bas-Lag where thaumaturgy (magic) and steampunk technology coexist. This outrageously imaginative novel is a bit of a departure from more traditional steampunk, and is probably best defined as ‘weird fiction’. Nevertheless, we feel it wholly deserves its place on this list as a prime example of the flexibility of steampunk elements and how they can be worked into such a vast array of different worlds and stories. Not all steampunk must be confined to Victorian London. Furthermore, this novel frequently appears in lists of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of all time. We all need a little bit of weird in our lives, after all.|
|8.||Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)
|Westerfeld’s Leviathan is a fan favorite and the first in a trilogy of the same name. Additionally, it has won numerous awards since publication and its appeal transcends the YA/adult barrier, delighting readers of all ages. This story takes place at the beginning of World War I and follows the adventures of prodigal British Air pilot Deryn—who is actually a young girl in disguise—and Prince Aleksander, the dethroned heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. In this version of the war, however, the Central Powers use huge mechanical war machines while the Entente Powers use specially evolved colossal war beasts in battle.|
|9.||Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter (1979)
|Okay, Jeter gets another entry on the list, this time a stand-alone. After all, we have to give the guy some credit for inventing the term ‘steampunk’. For those that missed the title’s allusion, this story is a continuation of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The brutish Morlocks that Wells’ protagonist encountered in the far future acquire a machine of their own and arrive in Victorian England, causing destruction and mayhem. However, some great heroes of legend have also returned to fight for their country’s future.|
|10.||Steampunk (anthology) edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2008)
|This entry may be considered cheating as it is an anthology, and an anthology titled Steampunk at that. Nevertheless it is a great work, incorporating stories from many great authors including Neal Stephensen, James Blaylock and Michael Moorcock. The title says it all really. It doesn’t get more steampunk than this.|
|11.||The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock (1971)
|An early example of steampunk, The Warlord of the Air is the first in a series featuring Victorian air captain Oswald Bastable. Bastable finds himself transported from 1902 to an alternate version of 1973 where technology has evolved somewhat differently and World War I never happened. A steampunk time travel classic.|
|12.||Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (1986)
|An award winning classic, Homunculus involves an alternate 1970’s London, no stranger to aliens, perversity and the reanimated dead. A dirigible with a dead pilot has been tracing a decaying orbit around the city for years. The mysterious airship arouses the interest of parties which include the Royal Society, an explorer, and a half alien evangelist named Shiloh. Fascinating, darkly atmospheric, absurd and brilliant.|
|13.||The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman (2010)
|A fantastical steampunk reimaging of the American West, The Half-Made World is the first volume in a planned duology. The world is left unfinished, its creation put on hold as demonic spirits from two rival factions, the Line and the Gun, battle for supremacy. They go about their war by manifesting in technology and using humans as weapons. Humankind’s only chance of freedom lies in the hands of a psychologist and her patient, an old general with a shattered mind that may just hold the secret to victory against the spirits. Want to know more? Check out our review.|
|14.||The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia (2008)
|Filled with romance, magic and political intrigue, The Alchemy of Stone tells the story of a self-aware automaton named Mattie who discovers a talent for alchemy. As the old regime gives way to a new world order, she finds herself caught up in the conflict between the Gargoyles, the Alchemists, and the Mechanics. However, what Mattie wants most is independence, something she may never have while her creator holds the key needed to reanimate her whenever her gears run down. A thought provoking and intriguing novel.|
|15.||Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2010)
|Cold Magic is the first volume in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy. While it is primarily a fantasy novel, it is set in a world undergoing industrial revolution and contains plenty of steampunkesque elements. This novel is included on the list as another example of the versatility of steampunk aesthetic and because it’s a highly enjoyable read. Science and magic are locked in a vicious struggle and one young woman holds the key to the outcome.|
|16.||Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009)
|Soulless is the first novel in the exceedingly popular steampunk/paranormal romance/mystery series The Parasol Protectorate featuring Miss Alexia Tarabotti, an unconventional young woman without a suitor or a soul. A witty foray into the more humorous side of steampunk, this novel features vampires, werewolves, air ships, impeccable fashion sense, and lots of tea drinking.|
|17.||Worldshaker by Richard Harland (2009)
|Harland’s Worldshaker (reviewed here) is a dystopian steampunk adventure aimed at young adults; however, like many of the other YA offerings on this list, it can be enjoyed by older readers. Taking place entirely within the self-contained world of the industrial juggernaut ‘Worldshaker’, the story begins when a privileged young man named Col has a chance encounter with a young female ‘filthy’ called Riff. Despite being taught that the ‘filthies’, whose labors power the moving city, are subhuman, Col finds that they are essentially no different from the residents of the upper decks. Will he risk everything to follow his conscience? A quirky and engaging steampunk novel with plenty of humor and a satirical edge.|
|18.||Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding (2009)
|It seems 2009 was a good year for modern steampunk, with yet another entry on the list. Retribution Falls is the first novel in Wooding’s steampunk pirate series Tales of the Ketty Jay. It follows the misadventures of roguish Captain Darian Frey and his dysfunctional crew as they smuggle, steal and generally make a nuisance of themselves. However, when Frey and company are framed for a crime they did not commit, they must embark on a quest to find the true culprit before the law finally catches up to them—something easier said than done. A wildly entertaining tale combining of steampunk, western, sci-fi and fantasy.|
|19.||Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers (2009)
|Akers’ debut is a steampunk fantasy set in the exotic city of Veridon, home of living metal and a religion founded on mysterious scraps of technology scavenged from the waters of a mighty river. Jacob Burn, a disgraced nobleman, finds himself in possession of a mysterious cog. However, many others seek the artifact for unknown purposes and Jacob finds himself drawn into a dark underground of crime, conspiracies and a secret that penetrates to the heart of the city itself. Imaginative and absorbing.|
|20.||Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
|While not containing nearly as many steampunk elements as the film adaption, the young adult novel Howl’s Moving Castle still earns its place on this list. This charming tale by a master storyteller follows the adventures of a young girl called Sophie Hatter. Sophie is transformed into an old woman when she offends the Witch of the Waste and sets out on a journey in the hope of finding a way to change herself back. She soon finds herself in a strange mobile castle owned by the mysterious and self-obsessed wizard Howl and powered by a fire demon named Calcifer. However, the witch is not finished with Sophie or Howl.|
Enjoy our Introduction to Steampunk list? Was it helpful? Do you agree with our choices or disagree? What would you add to the list?
Discuss it with us in the Introduction to Steampunk thread on our forums!