Steampunk for the Modern Age: A Review of The Queen of all Crows, by Rod Duncan

Steampunk is one of the more niche genres of fiction around, never having made it into the mainstream lexicon of literature.  Steampunk as a genre is defined by setting and technology.  Imagine a world where steam-power became the dominate energy source and defined the aesthetic for the world.  Grimy cities full of pipes and fog.  Electrical contraptions plucked straight from the mind of Nikola Tesla.  Airships dominating the sky as the primary form of transportation.  Steampunk as a genre is what happens when creators take the inherent fascination with everything Victorian and turn-of-the-century, and imagine a world where technology continued upon that path.  Victorian sensibilities and imperialism coupled with science-fiction technologies.  Overall, the steampunk aesthetic is one of the most fascinating.

The Queen of All Crows, the first novel in The Map of Unknown Things series, was written by Welsh author Rod Duncan.  Born and raised in Aberystwyth, Wales, Duncan was identified as dyslexic at the age of eight, and navigated his way through the British school system while finding ways to avoid writing as much as possible.  He then migrated to the University of Leicester to obtain his undergraduate degree in Mining Geology, and returned to the school to complete his Ph.D. in Geology and Satellite Imagery.  Duncan later moved to Taiwan in the 80’s, where he established an education development program on behalf of the Bahá’í faith.  Duncan later moved back to Britain around 1990, and currently lives there.  With his dyslexia, Duncan did not begin writing until the invention of the word processor, simplifying and enabling writing to a degree not previously known.  To this day, Duncan also uses dictation software to assist with his writing process.

The Queen of all Crows takes place in the year 2012, but it a very different 2012 from the one we all experienced.  The Gas-Lit Empire rules the known world, an Imperial England which does not seem to have relinquished a colony after the United States.  This is a world where the Victorian age never truly ended, despite the death of the monarch after whom it is named.  Adhering to the steampunk aesthetic, airships rule the air and coal-powered floating fortresses traverse the sea, employing fleets of whaling vessels harvesting oil.  The Gas-Lit Empire employs the International Patent Office and its agents around the world, a network of scientists, spies, and saboteurs.  These agents control all technological development around the world in order to enforce the Great Quiet, a period of peace lasting over a hundred years.  They promote and approve cooperative technologies, while destroying any record of destructive ones.  Their power is absolute, but they cannot be everywhere at once.

The hero of The Queen of All Crows is Englishman Elizabeth Barnabus, a former law school student in London.  We never learn much about her past prior to the events of the book, but it is revealed that Elizabeth was raised by her father in her circus and, as part of her performance, became a master of disguise.  Elizabeth has always lived two lives, that of a woman and that of a man, perfecting her disguise well enough to fully live male.  Prior to the present-day of the novel, Elizabeth’s best friend, Julia Swain, gets married and moves to America.  However, in transit, her airship is shot down over the Atlantic.  No survivors are ever found.  Using her connections to the Patent Office, Elizabeth learns of a pirate nation haunting the waters, possessing new, unheard of weapons technologies.  She infiltrates the Patent Office to show her prowess and is accepted as one of their spies, sent to find this so-called Nation of Eels and learn their true intentions.

The Nation of Eels ends up being so much more than a fleet of pirates on the high-seas.  They call themselves the Sargassans, and they are entirely female, living on a man-made Island christened Freedom Island.  Led by Mother Rebecca, their queen, the Sargassans are former slaves and otherwise oppressed women who left their previous lives to find a better life.  Some fled, some were liberated, and some took control after killing their oppressors.  They engage in piracy, selling the men they capture into slavery while offering any women a chance to live amongst them.  They deal in illegal arms to protect themselves from the forces they know are coming for them.  They have no issue replying to violence with more violence, but in each other lives, the violence chose them.  Mother Rebecca’s right and left hands Siân and Gwynedd, represent the two sides of this new nation.  A warhawk and a diplomat.  Like any other nation, they yearn for legitimacy on the world stage, but disagree on how to obtain that.  Siân believes in taking legitimacy by force, while Gwynedd advocates for a more political solution.  Freedom Island is both idyllic and messy, like any new country.

With the introduction of the Sargassans and their growing rule over the ocean, the underlying conflict of The Queen of all Crows is revealed.  The world of the Gas-Lit Empire is a world that never moved past the Victorian era.  That means women’s suffrage did not happen at the same time it did in the real world, and other liberal ideals ingrained in our culture we now take for granted may have never come about.  There is a moment early on in the novel which references when women were finally allowed to study the law, and it does not appear to have been too long before 2012 in the story.  No mention is made of equal rights and protections for same-sex couples or transgender individuals, and it can be assumed reproductive rights are non-existent.  Among the English and American characters in the novel, we also do not meet any people of color.  In a world like this, Freedom Island can appear as a paradise.  However, even they are not immune from the darkness, an active participant in the slave trade.  In the world of The Queen of all Crows, there is no right side to their conflict.

Steampunk is more than just an aesthetic, although it is an infinitely fascinating aesthetic, it is a genre and a setting with baggage.  As inherently fascinating as the world of Victorian England is, it is a world we have happily moved past.  Steampunk allows authors to celebrate the most interesting parts of that world while examining why we finally evolved and moved past their so-called sensibilities.  With steampunk, we can also throw in a health dose of science-fiction, if only to complete the coolness of the aesthetic.  While still very much niche genre, it is a niche which grows every day.

The Queen of all Crows can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 5 days

Next on the List: Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James

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