The Shadow Conspiracy II edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff caught my eye in the LibraryThing Early Reader program because I’d met both the editors at BayCon (and had, in fact, heard both of them read). Between that and the steampunk theme, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity, and I am glad I didn’t.
This is a wonderful collection of eleven steampunk short stories by the following authors: Amy Sterling Casil, Judith Tarr, Irene Radford, Brenda Clough, Sue Lange, C.L. Anderson, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Nancy Jane Moore, Pati Nagle, and Chris Dolley. It contains both stories set in the more traditional arena of Europe, and ones occurring in the New World and even Africa. The characters range from society darlings, to pirates, and even on to missionaries and newspaper men. The main characters are just as likely to be male as female as well (despite the inclusion of only one male author), offering rather different perspectives on the stories and environments. The stories themselves range from psychological/philosophical pieces to adventures and mysteries.
Where many have questioned whether the “punk” has lost its meaning in steampunk as the aesthetic gains more ground than the theme of poking into society’s corners, this collection will offer neither group a quibble. The stories found within these covers (metaphorically speaking since I read it as an eBook) contain automations, steamships and blimps, and various other devices of unusual properties. At the same time, most, if not all, address some aspect of society and philosophy. The most common theme among them is what defines a person, but each story finds a different way of exploring this, such as through the question of skin color, soul transference, or immortality, to name a few.
I can’t say every story was a hit with me, but none of them made me regret reading. The collection even offered a game for the careful reader to play in that these apparently disparate stories held hidden seeds showing how they interrelate despite differences in time and location, if in the most minor fashion. The stories are clearly not just sharing a genre, but sharing an interpretation of that genre within a specific world. While I did not find the clues in every story, or was too involved in the story itself to notice them, I enjoyed how this steampunk world spanned a good part of the globe, and the timeframe, without losing its unique elements.
I wanted to mention my favorite stories, but I am having a hard time separating out just which ones those were. Some I enjoyed the most at my first read while others lingered longer and have now become favorites. There’s little question that I will be picking up the first collection set in this world, and the next should there be one. The only story that significantly jarred me was the very last, and this because it rests primarily on a joke, something not common among the other stories. That said, it’s well written with well-drawn, if traditional, characters and a mystery that builds throughout the tale so when the joke happens, it makes sense and fits with the rest. As a story, it did not fail the reader in me. My only issue was how it related to the rest of the collection’s feel.
Overall, a wonderful read, and one I do not hesitate to recommend to anyone who likes steampunk…or would like a taste of this fascinating genre.