I have been a little swamped and didn’t get everything done in Indie April I wanted to get done. As such this is a little late…
The Department of Curiosities By Karen J Carlisle
Karen J Carlisle is a writer and illustrator of steampunk, Victorian mysteries and fantasy. She was short-listed in Australian Literature Review’s 2013 Murder/Mystery Short Story Competition. Her first novella, Doctor Jack & Other Tales, was published in 2015 and her short stories have featured in the 2016 Adelaide Fringe exhibition, ‘A Trail of Tales’, and the ‘Where’s Holmes’ and ‘Deadsteam’ anthologies.
Karen lives in Adelaide with her family and the ghost of her ancient Devon Rex cat. She’s always loved dark chocolate and rarely refuses a cup of tea.
Her latest novel, which isn’t out until the 22nd of May is ‘The Department of Curiosities’, as you may have guessed. I was given both the privilege and pleasure of reading an advanced copy.
Steampunk, as a genre, is occasionally a little absurd, and at it’s best, it embraces that absurdity and runs with it. I say this because the most common steampunk era, the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign, is in of itself a little absurd to modern eyes. All those careful manners, ridiculous clothes, the class system, and taking of high teas, makes for mildly comic excess that becomes pervasive, and delightfully absurd setting before you even begin to throw about the weird and the wonderful. Which is not to say that steampunk is necessarily comic, or necessarily absurd by default. there is plenty of grim dark steampunk about, but I have a liking for the more absurd end of the spectrum. (readers of Hannibal Smyth will be aware of this no doubt).
But, and here is the crux of the matter, absurd is all well and good, but it needs to be measured and countered with solid storytelling. You can put as many; dirigibles, automatons, grim silent grey fellows in top hats who don’t seem entirely alive, combat parasols, de Vinci codebooks, personal flying backpacks, weird weapons, meetings with the queen, retired and very British generals, suspicious clerks, nefarious professors, traitors, menacing jewellery, secretive organisations loyal to the crown, secret organisations opposed to the crown, resourceful young ladies in armoured corsets, clouded pasts and family secrets, into a novel as you like, but it will all become just a jumbled mess without solid storytelling.
Absurdities also have to be the kind of absurdities that you (the reader) are willing to go along with and willing to accept and believe in the context of the story, and that is the real trick to writing steampunk. The writer is creating a world, full of its own logic, and needs the reader to believe in that logic, because if the reader believes in the logic they will be carried along by good storytelling. Sure you might find yourself shouting at the main character once in a while when they do something foolish, but if that foolishness fits the character that part of the enjoyment. Steampunk at its best is storytelling in one of its most unabashed forms because we all know that a fair portion of it is absurd manners and technology, yet we (the readers) don’t care. The writer will never explain just how that steam-powered bicycle works, and the reader doesn’t care about power to weight ratios making it impossible. A steam-powered penny farthing is just a fun idea…
The long list a couple of paragraphs ago is taken directly from things that happen and exist in Karen Carlisle’s ‘The Department of Curiosities’. the first in a series of books that it is safe to assume will see her heroine Miss Matilda ‘Tilly’ Meriwether continue a series of mildly absurd adventures in pursuit of the truth about her father. If, as I very much suspect, they are as well written, as entertaining, as delightfully absurd in all the best ways, and just as bloody good storytelling, then I can’t wait to read them. Because the first book in the series is just that, and like all good first books it leaves you with answers to some questions, but a whole lot of new questions to ponder while you await the next instalment. Sure I have some educated guesses as to the answers to some of those questions I was left with when I finished this book in the early hours of the morning, but that too is half the fun, I mean I am utterly sure I know exactly what the ‘orb’ is or should I say whom… but I can’t know for sure, and yet not knowing is better than having all the loose ends tied up. That’s part of the secret of good storytelling, knowing when to say ‘and I’ll tell you the next part tomorrow night oh Sultan…’
Karen spins a great yarn, its light when it needs to be light, dark when it needs to be dark, funny and absurd but always believably so. At its core, its a fun read about a resourceful young lady in an armoured corset. It is, to use a little steampunk vernacular (which in itself is often a tad absurd)
A splendiferously splendid tale of adventure among the high teas…