Reviewed by Robert Runté
Rhonda Parrish is perhaps Canada’s best-known and most prolific speculative fiction anthologist. By my count, this is her twenty-fourth themed volume and possibly her best yet. Clockwork, Curses and Coal: Steampunk and Gaslamp Fairy Tales is a mashup of Steampunk, Victorian/Edwardian era settings, and fairy tales. That may sound like an odd genre mix, but Parrish makes it work.
The opening story, Christina Ruth Johnson’s “The Iron Revolution” for example, completely validates Parrish’s vision. A mashup of not one, not two, but three fairy tales set in a steampunk version of the 1851 Great Exhibition, it’s a delight. An engaging “find the changeling” mystery, it kept me guessing and made me an instant fan of steampunk fairy tales.
What I like most about Parrish, though, is not just her high standards and imaginative themes, but her ability to attract a diverse group of new voices that represent a full range of what speculative fiction has to offer. While she includes at least a few established and award-winning writers in each volume, Parrish has a knack for recognizing the next big talent and giving them space to breathe within her various anthology series. These new voices naturally bring diverse interpretations, diverse settings, and a wide variety of genre backgrounds to Parrish’s anthologies.
Four of the authors here, for example, reinterpret fairy tales to provide a feminist critique of Victorian--and, of course, our own--society: “Sappho and Erinna” by Lex T. Lindsay is a queer retelling of one of my favourites fairy tales as a mystery steampunk adventure; “A Future of Towers Made” by Beth Cato gives a feminist twist to Rapunzel; “Necromancy” by Melissa Bode is a chilling metaphor for those obsessed with controlling their daughters; and Sarah Van Goethem’s “A Bird Girl in the Dark of Night” seconds that condemnation of bad parenting.
Several of the stories could be loosely categorized as horror. In addition to “Necromancy” and “A Bird Girl in the Dark of Night” (which are both wonderfully disturbing), Reese Hogan’s “The Balance of Memory” uses a bit of Mary Shelley to mash up a familiar fairy tale into a steampunk ghost story, while Brian Trent’s “Checkmate” disembowels Alice in Wonderland (with a touch of Egyptian Styx) to give us steampunk-superhero combat.
The collection’s tendency towards horror is nicely balanced by adventure romps, such as the aforementioned “Iron Revolution” and “Sappho and Erinna”, Wendy Nikel’s “Blood and Clockwork” and M. L. D. Curelas’s “Coach Girl”. Alethea Kontis’s “The Giant and the Unicorn” is positively cuddly.
While the majority of stories are set in England, Diana Hurlbut’s “Divine Spark” immerses the reader in an America both steampunk and darkly familiar, its revival movements, racism, and misplaced religiosity playing out against a backdrop of mechanized murder. Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s “Ningyo” is set in a steampunk and haunted Japan. “Father Worm” is set outside of any familiar time or space, and is undoubtedly the weirdest piece in the collection, but I’m glad it found its home here.
Out of the thirteen stories, there was only one I did not care for. I felt Joseph Halden’s “Clockwork Tea” a little heavy-handed, the fairy tale connection a little forced, but kudos to Parrish for including a post-colonial tale highlighting a nasty bit of British history with which most readers will be previously unfamiliar.
Otherwise, the stories all sing, a surprisingly high proportion for any anthology, and especially one catering to such a wide range of sensibilities. If you do buy and enjoy the range of short fiction in this steampunk-fairy anthology, I can equally recommend the other volumes in Parrish’s astonishing output.
Clockwork, Curses, and Coal is published by World Weaver Press.