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19 Steampunk Sci-Fi Books that will Make You Love Trains, Cowboys and Airships

December 5, 2017       Arts and Culture
Steampunk Books for 
Your Airship or
Sherlock Holmes Fetish 

Steampunk is a retro-future built on
stylized clockwork machina
and steam-powered engines. 

Image Credit: Steampunk by Stephane Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 

Seen those movies or read those adventure novels of clockwork automatons and steam-powered airships?  Or anime with coal-fired, steam-engine trains like battleships that fly into space, or counting machine computers that use mechanical innards instead of circuit boards?  Watched kids and adults who will always be kids wearing outfits that would have been uniforms from the turn of the last 3 centuries before the 20th century?  

This kind of sci-fi themed world is the Steampunk universe. An alternate history or re-imagined retro-future with elements of both horror or fantasy mixed in whenever the storyteller wants more bells and whistles.  The stories of the Steampunk retro-future and world cultures that involve steampower and clockwork machina is a resurgent and reinvigorated alternate history war scenarios or old world frontier adventure tropes injected with the sensibilities of this age: crime-noir slickness and sleekness, steam power in the grand romance of space operas, even as a hybrid with supernatural horror in the age of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft's monster universe.

Here are our reviews and picks of books for you the steampunk adventure fan who wants more of anything with bomber goggles and bio-mechanical airships, or space trains.

Image Credit:  Penguin Books (Fair Use)

1.  Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

Written as a rude (burlesque) and black humored jibe at chivalry and romance during Medieval England, Mark Twain may have put together the first steampunk novel with A Conncecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In this time travel adventure that has Yankee engineer, Hank Morgan, getting transported to Camelot-era England in the middle of a rift between King Arthur, the Black Knight and a jealous sorceror-chicanery purveyor named Merlin; and working to keep the place together amidst all the political power play, wars.  Even an edict by the Catholic Church to destroy him doesn't faze nor stop the man out of time, Sir Boss.  Hank introduces gunpowder, electricity, and all sorts of scientific and engineering hacks to help King Arthur keep his kingdom together.  

Technically, the gunpowder may be the only real steampunk qualifier here but the variations of this original story have made it a pioneering effort at placing a technology in a retro environment where it is advanced and glorified no matter how crude it really is.

Image Credit:  Jeane Du Prau and Yearling (Fair Use)

2.  The City of Ember
by Jeane Du Prau

Kids are stuck in a murder mystery while trying to find out why their clockwork dynamo is conking out and blackouts are becoming more common when the lights of the city go out.  They don't know they are in an underground cavern safehold in some extinct volcano riding out the apocalypse topside and that 200 years have passed and it should be time they should be moving out and back into the Earth to replenish and restart their lives.  The scientists who placed their families there 200 years before outfitted them with rudimentary survival gear and equipment that would not create strife or divisions plus a 200 year supply of food and seeds to grow food. 

All of their supplies are now running low and the kids have to figure out fast how to get the town to know the last message for hauling ship out of the black cavern. All technology in the claustrophobic world of The City of Ember are simple clockwork machina and a steam powered dynamo to light up the city in a world after the world fell over the edge and readers get the feel of how a world fixed by rote routines can really wear down on its inhabitants in spite of all the good intentions of neighborly love.

Image Credit:  Scott Westerfield and
Simon Pulse  (Fair Use)

3.  Leviathan, Behemoth, Goliath
by Scott Westerfield

The Leviathan trilogy is a YA romance adventure series hidden in a steampunk war adventure.  In an alternate history Earth where the two rival countries, Britain--armed with biomechanical whales that are airships armed to the teeth with turrets and bombs, and Germany--armed with its own steam-engine walking mecha tanks called Clankers, two pilots from each country are destined to meet up and change the world they live in.  The book also features sci-fi tropes of bio-mechanical constructs or bio-engineered animals, grown to become weapons or vehicles--the British airship whales.  The Leviathan Trilogy is a romp of a coming-of-age adventure in alternate history Europe by YA author, Scott Westerfield.  

Image Credit:  Ace (Fair Use)

4.  The Whitechapel Gods
by S.M. Peters

S.M. Peters plays with automatons and clockwork machina going god-zooks in his Steampunk novel, The Whitechapel Gods.  London is a hellhole with the section known as Whitechapel ruled by two machina constructs that are called Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, both demonic-gods who feed people and detritus to their respective furnaces or grinders as sacrifice and life-force fuel.  Londoners have rebelled before against these two oppressors, but now they have found a secret weapon that can either turn the tide of their war against the machina, or backfire and annihilate them all.  

Image Credit:  Tom Doherty Associates (Fair Use)

5.  Mainspring
by Jay Lake

The Earth is a supernatural clockwork device and a man is tasked with a mission to find a missing artifact that may spell the future or doom for the planet.  The Earth of Mainspring is an alternate Creation construct that has two hemispheres, the steampunk industrialized North, and the bio-dome Eden-sculpted South with its cathedral forests and our hero Hethor sets out on a journey where he finds the Key Perilous, the doomsday artifact.  

If you fancy a novel like Dune with a coming-of-age heroic adventure and plenty of pseudo-philosophical fluff, Mainspring fits the bill and will get you in that steampunk mindset of God as Divine Craftsman intelligent design dude.

Image Credits  Ember  (Fair Use)

6.  The Hunchback Assignments
by Arthur Slade

The Hunchback Assignments is about a Clockwork Guild assassinating 2 important people in Britain, a 14-year-old, hunchback boy who is also a shapeshifter and is recruited to be a secret agent to stop this secret society from its plots to undermine the British Empire.  Modo is a young teen rescued from a circus freak show by the British Secret Service and trained to be a spook and help them keep the Empire safe from all forces of darkness out to sabotage and plunder.  Both supernatural forces and retro-clockwork, steam powered tech combine in this YA adventure for kids who like alternate history adventures.  Arthur Slade has a YA trilogy that should appeal to fans of classic tales that are reworked into thematic stories:  riffing off the The Hunchback of Notre Dame story by Victor Hugo.

Image Credit:  Night Shade Books  (Fair Use)

7.  The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi

A biotech mega-corporation is set up in Thailand, desperately seeking the last few remaining hybrid seeds and fruit bearing plants to save the world from a food crisis that is already decimating the world.  All food is tainted by a fungus-virus that creates a slow killing disease among the populace.  Power is run by mechanical devices such as elephants turning milling wheels and bio-geneticists are on the prowl to find the remaining non-tainted food plants that still hide out in the tropics.  

In this setting, a girl android who is working as both waitress and goo-goo doll in a nightclub wonders if life is all there is to it and if there can be any escape from her circumstances as an A.I. and if there are others like her out in the world.  The Windup Girl is Paolo Bacigalupi's coming-of-age novel of an artificial intelligence  girl who learns what being human in the midst of impossible conditions at the time when humans can barely be human anymore.  It won the Hugo in 2010 along with China Mieville's crime noir sci-fi novel, The City and the City, and this reviewer feels it is the better of the two winning books.

Image Credit:  Spectra (Fair use)

8.  The Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

In The Difference Engine, two detectives are trying to solve a murder mystery using a mechanical counting machine that can create investigative leads for them if they feed it the right information.  In the era of patent medicine and Sherlock Holmes-styled who-dunnit, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling weave a story of deception, reversal and crime noir hijinks in that era when gas lamps, carriages and clockwork machina made the world turn.  This is a romp of a detective novel in that era where the clockwork-mechanical and industrial gaslight urban jungle is spiked with very Neuromancery stud characters and movie-worthy action scenes.

Image Credit:  Del Rey  (Fair Use)

9.  Rail Sea, The Iron Council (Bas-Lag Trilogy)
by China Mieville

Two novels by the already legendary China Mieville, Rail Sea for young adults, and The Iron Council both involve adventures in the Wild West frontier of their respective strange worlds with steam trains.  Rail Sea has a train going out to hunt for giant moles in the treacherous desert like a retelling of Moby Dick.  The Iron Counci, on the other hand, is about a renegade group of outcasts, criminals and Frankenstein-like Remade humans and bipedal beings who all form a train crew and hijack a frontier train to escape oppression.  The crew flee out into a strange frontier that has radioactive no-man's lands, wastelands with desert smoke that solidfies, and strange legions of disembodied hands that are summoned demons which possess those they grab by the head.  

The Iron Council are being chased by government secret agent golem summoners out to kill the train crew.  China's writing in his Bas-Lag trilogy may be the most pulp among all steampunk novels out ther and it still comes off as some of the best written literary adventure and political novels that should never grow old. for as long as you get a kick out of a writer who breaks all the rules of fiction with his storytelling.

Image Credit:  Scholastic Press (Fair Use)

10.  Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeves

In Philip Reeves' YA novel series, Mortal Engines, London is barely making it alive after a worldwide cataclysm that resulted in volcanoes and earthquakes going bonkers.  The World as we know it is set back into a Victorian era economy and social strata of trade guilds: Merchants, Navigators, Engineers and Historians.  If you like Victoria Roth's Divergent sci-fi YA book, Mortal Engines is kind of in the same thematic concept of kids assigned roles in society, but set in the clockwork world of steam engines and machina constructs.

Image Credit:  Spectra (Fair Use)

11.  The Iron Jackal, The Black Lung Captain, The Ace of Skulls
by Chris Wooding

If you like action-adventure and retro-sci-fi ith Biplanes or propeller aircraft, airships and armored trains, Chris Wooding has several books in this vein that are dedicated steampunk worlds.  In The Black Lung Captain, Wooding gives us a story about crashed aircraft and airships filled with treasure becoming an inspiration for a pirate crew to go adventuring to some remote island that is haunted by nasty beasts.  Think of the classic tale of Treasure Island, but riffed into a steampunk world or robber pilots and all sorts of monsters.  The Iron Jackal is about a train robbery and some supernatural monsters thrown in, while The Ace of Skulls is another airship adventure.  Fun reads for fans looking for John Carter or Buck Rogers styled characters in a steampunk sci-fi setting.

Image Credit:  Victor Gollancz  (Fair Use)

12.  Inverted World
by Christopher Priest

Inverted World is the proto-steampunk novel of sci-fi legend, Christopher Priest.  Which is about a city that travels on rail tracks like a steam train across its world, but as people grow old, and the rail city becomes a ghostly spectre with its decimated population, something looms as a threat to its existence.  Considered a sci-fi classic, Inverted World should be one of the first books you should check out if you want train and railway themed-genre stories that have been recently revived by some steampunk writers.

Image Credit:  Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.  (Fair Use)

13.  Heart of Veridon
by Tim Akers

The novel, Heart of Veridon, is from the Burn Cycle series is about a cyborg working for an alternate Earth corporate mafia that is running zeppelins and cog artifacts that are precious beyond measure, and he gets to safekeep one particular gadget, while all sorts of characters chase him down to recover the item.  There is even a murderous clockwork angel that is strangely chasing our hero too.  If you like gears and cogs and a world built on clockwork machina that includes zeppelin airliners and cyborgs plus the aforementioned killer-angel, this science fiction series by Tim Akers is the kind of setting as character story that better steampunk-themed stories deliver.  Because you want to soak up all that atmosphere and retro-future instead of be bothered by the whines and mores of hard luck people stuck in such a strange era.  

Image Credit:  Yearling  (Fair Use)

14. The Golden Compass (Northern Lights trilogy)
by Philip Pullman

A young girl, Lyra Belacqua is bequeathed a peculiar device that can predict everything in the world and answer any question, and she is on the run from government agents out to destroy this alternate Earth and enslave everyone.  The people in The Golden Compass have part of their souls exist apart from them as daemons or animal familiars, which can shapeshift at will until the individual is of age and the daemon chooses its final animal form.  It's a funny animal story that is also a sci-fi fantasy adventure with a tragic ending that sets the tone for the book trilogy.  The enemy in this story seeks to excise people from their daemons without killing them, but in doing so they render people into mindless zombie slaves, separate from their animal familiar-souls who dissipate and die.  As humans without souls, they eventually die themselves.  The book was made into a movie that the Catholic Church protested against and were able to shut Disney down from following up on it up til now.  More reason to read something your parish priest will move heaven and earth and raise hell so you won't read it too.  Heeh.

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15.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter 
by Michael Swanwick

More faeries and dragons and a mechanical steampunk world with dark sorcery and drug mafias.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick is a much beloved subversive sci-fi classic that every steampunk fan should have in his library hoard.  It has been put down by some puritan sci-if reviewers but the novel is gorgeous exactly for the kind of unpretentious depiction of a sci-fi setting as a dreary, dystopian and non-Disneyfied society of forced labor, secret wars, elven mafias and lots of sex.  Cool?  You betcha.  It is a coming of age story of a girl secretly building a weapon to end the world where she is oppressed and maligned in every way imaginable.  Where she still redeems herself at the end, in spite of all the shenanigans that go on.  The  apocalypse weapon being a jet fighter malignant Dragon rapist named Melancthon.  Go buy one for your school library now.

Image Credit:  Wizards of the Coast  (Fair Use)

16.  Dragon War (Eberron novels)
by James Wyatt

The Eberron setting of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game is a steampunk themed high fantasy series where technology that is clockwork, plus crude electric power and steam engine related know-how are somehow lost knowledge or secret knowledge in this fantasy world, and beings have magic powers too as well as the requisite fantasy beasts like dragons and all sorts of magic automatons and golems.  If you like fantasy and a steampunk setting all-in-one book series, you should check out the Eberron brand of D&D novels by various name fantasy authors.  

We recommend James Wyatt, a fan-favorite writer for D&D books with his Dragonic Prophecy series for the Eberron world.  While most steampunk authors are blamed for making setting-fluff heavy books with flat characters, James Wyatt is popular for fleshing out unforgettable swashbucklers that fantasy readers live for.  With Dragon Wars, Wyatt delivers his steampunk yarn in a planet and sword setting-which may be Dungeons & Dragons best fantasy setting among its RPG products.

Image Credit: Del Rey Books  (Fair Use)

17.  Devil's Engine series
by Mark Sumner

Mark Sumner has an alternate American Civil War two novel series, with Devil's Engine and Devil's Tower, both of which offer a magic and sorcery filled aftermath of the American Civil War. Two factions, a railroad magnate seeking to rebuild and unite the nation with one railway, but who is also seeking to usurp and negate all magic in the land; and a gun-for-hire who seeks to stop this villain from taking over the country.  The other novel is about the same gun-for-hire hero looking to face off against a magic wielding General Custer.  As engaging retellings of familiar American history Civil War stories, Mark Sumner's take on the steampunk sci-fi genre as pulp adventure offers the usual action hero, western tropes that kids will love.

Image Credit:  Ace Books  (Fair Use)

18.  The Anubis Gates
by Tim Powers

As one of the first sci-fi novels to feature retro-stylized adventures with time travel and an 18th to 19th century setting, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers was a very influential book on sci-fi writers of steampunk.  Crime noir hi-jinks take the stage in time travel adventures with Professor Brendan Doyle making an effort to survive getting stuck in the past while jumping around in time.  The time traveling academician even assumes the identity of favorite poet, William Ashbless, realizing that he was this person and his time travel back allows him to complete his destiny.  All the while, he is chased by murderous beggar gangs, nefarious magician guilds and gypsies, and even grotesques and Frankenstein-like monsters.  If you want canon before steampunk ever became a trendy sci-fi category by itself, read The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and enjoy stories in this vein of crime noir and time travel.
Image Credit: Tom Doherty Associates (Fair Use)

19.  The Half-Made World
by Felix Gilman

In the steampunk western, The Half-Made World, an alternate America is ruled by two factions, The Gun, a posse of demon possessed gunslinger bandits who rob and rape and keep people safe from the other faction, The Rail, the Big Brother of pioneering America, an enslaved workforce for a corporate mafia government that is bent on uniting both sides of the United States with their railroad while hunting down and dislodging Agents of the Gun.  The hero of the novel is a demon, while his alter ego on the side of The Rail is a zombie-grind working stiff for the government railway, whose health is falling apart from the robotic dedication to his job.  They each try to survive the wild, wild, west, while the demon cowboy finds a sacred place that The Rail has been trying to track and destroy for a long time, and it might be the people here who hold the means for breaking the impending chokehold of The Rail and The Gun for that matter, on the rest of Frontier America.

These are our picks from among the steampunk universe of science fiction novels you can find out there and we hope you add them to your own hoard and enjoy the ratty tatters of retro worlds and cowboys, trains and airships that in many ways are more adventurous than most modern sci-fi stories.


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