Airships & Corsets & Clockwork… Oh My!: Steampunk in YA Fiction

What exactly is “steampunk?” It’s a literary genre, visual aesthetic, and a vibrant community of individuals. Steampunk as it’s known today began as a response to the “cyberpunk” movement in science fiction the 1980s and 1990s. Inspired by late Victorian science fiction such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, steampunk imagines a world in which Victorian steam-powered technology takes the place of modern nuclear and electronic technology. Steampunk also retains a strong Victorian sensibility when it comes to fashion: corsets are mixed with clockwork gears, and airships are often the primary mode of transportation. Some fans attend conventions of fellow steampunk enthusiasts or wear steampunk-inspired clothing in their everyday lives.

Because steampunk can be defined as several different genres in the library catalog (steampunk can also be classified as science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, or alternate history), a catalog search is not always productive when looking for steampunk fiction. While any of these terms can be used in a keyword or subject search, searching for “steampunk” in NoveList, Goodreads, or book review journals/databases can also be helpful.

Steampunk & Diversity: Some Resources

In its revisionist approach to history, steampunk is capable of exploring race in interesting, varied ways. Some steampunk literature, however, ignores minorities altogether or extends the prejudice of the Victorian era towards these groups. There is a growing multicultural movement within steampunk, however, and these resources provide an introduction to diverse books and groups within steampunk culture.

Beyond Victoriana

The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective

Multiculturalism for Steampunk

Silver Goggles

Steampunk Magazine

Some Japanese anime and manga have a strong steampunk sensibility as well and, in some cases, feature nonwhite characters in the leading roles. The popular seriesFullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa contains elements of steampunk.

Steampunk Fiction (YA/Ages 14+)*

(*The descriptions provided are for the first volume in the series unless otherwise noted.
The location CCB is the Center for Children’s Books.)

Carriger, Gail. The Parasol Protectorate [Series]
Soulless. 2009. [Residence Halls Lincoln Avenue SciFi/Fantasy 813 C2351s]
Changeless. 2010. [Residence Halls Lincoln Avenue SciFi/Fantasy 813 C2351ch]
Blameless. 2010. [Residence Halls Lincoln Avenue SciFi/Fantasy 813 C2351bl]
Heartless. 2011.

Soulless spinster Alexia Tarabotti accidentally kills a vampire — and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. Everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

Clare, Cassandra. The Infernal Devices [Series]
Clockwork Angel. 2010. [CCB S.C541cl]
Clockwork Prince. 2011.

The year is 1878. Searching for her missing brother, sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray descends into London’s dark supernatural underworld and finds herself up against the Pandemonium Club, a secret organization of vampires, demons, warlocks, and humans. Equipped with a magical army of unstoppable clockwork demons, the Club is out to rule the British Empire, and only Tessa and her Shadowhunter allies can stop them. Prequel to Clare’s bestselling The Mortal Instruments series.

Colfer, Eoin. Airman. 2008. [Education S Collection S.C68air]

In the 1890s, Conor Broekart and his family live in a castle on the sovereign Saltee Islands, off the Irish coast. When Conor tries to expose a plot to kill the king, he is branded a traitor and thrown into jail on the prison island of Little Saltee. Flight is his only means of escape, so he passes the solitary months by scratching drawings of flying machines into the prison walls. The months turn into years, but eventually the day comes when Conor must find the courage to trust his revolutionary designs and take to the skies.

Cornish, D. M. Monster’s Blood Tattoo [Series]
Foundling. 2006. [Education S Collection S.C816f]
Lamplighter. 2008. [Education Storage S.C816l]
Factorum. 2010. [Education S Collection S.C816fa]

Having grown up in a home for foundlings and possessing a girl’s name, Rossam√ľnd sets out to report to his new job as a lamplighter and has several adventures along the way as he meets people and monsters who are more complicated that he previously thought. The fictional world of Half-Continent bears a strong resemblance to a Dickensian London powered by alchemy and fantastical scientific inventions.

De Quidt, Jeremy. The Toymaker. 2008. [Education S Collection S.D443t]

What good is a toy that will wind down? What if you could give a toy a heart that would beat and beat and didn’t stop? From the moment that the circus boy, Mathias, takes a small roll of paper from the dying conjuror, his fate is sealed. For on it is the key to a terrifying secret, and there are those who would kill him rather than have it told. Pursued by the sinister Dr. Leiter and preyed on by the circus master and his wife, Mathias is drawn into a relentless nightmare that will lead him to the Toymaker, and to a knife as cruel as frost.

Dolamore, Jaclyn. Magic Under Glass. 2010. [CCB S.D6856m]

When wealthy sorcerer Hollin Parry hires Nimira to sing with a piano-playing automaton, she believes it is the start of a new and better life. But unsettling below-stairs rumors swirl about ghosts, a madwoman roaming the halls, and Parry’s involvement with a league of sorcerers who torture fairies for sport. Then Nimira discovers the spirit of a fairy gentleman named Erris is trapped inside the clockwork automaton. The two fall into a love that seems hopeless, and breaking the curse becomes a race against time, as not just their love, but the fate of the entire magical world may be in peril.

Fisher, Catherine. Incarceron [Series]
Incarceron. 2010. [Education S Collection S.F531i2010]
Sapphique. 2010. [Education S Collection S.F531sa2010]

Incarceron is a prison so vast that it contains not only cells, but also metal forests, dilapidated cities, and vast wilderness. Finn, a seventeen-year-old prisoner, has no memory of his childhood and is sure that he came from Outside. Escape seems impossible until Finn finds a crystal key that allows him to communicate with a girl named Claudia, the Warden’s daughter. Claudia believes that she can escape her arranged marriage and free Finn. But they don’t realize that there is more to Incarceron than meets the eye, and escape will take their greatest courage and cost more than they know.

Harland, Richard. Worldshaker. 2010. [CCB S.H2267w]

Col Porpentine understands how society works: The elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks of the great juggernaut Worldshaker, and the Filthies toil Below Decks. Col’s grandfather, the Supreme Commander of Worldshaker, is grooming Col as his successor. Col believes Filthies are like animals until he meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run who is clever and quick. If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has been told is a lie. And Col has the power to do something about it–even if it means risking his whole future.

Kittredge, Caitlin. Iron Codes [Series]
The Iron Thorn. 2011. [Education S Collection S.K6581i]

In an alternate 1950s, the Proctors rule the city of Lovecraft and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order–including Heretical beliefs such as magic and witchcraft–to dust. Every member of fifteen-year-old Aoife Grayson’s family, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their sixteenth birthday. Now a ward of the state and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, Aoife must leave Lovecraft in order to solve the mysteries of the city and, perhaps, change her fate.

Oppel, Kenneth. Matt Cruse [Series]
Airborn. 2004. [CCB S.Op5a]
Skybreaker. 2006. [CCB S.Op52s]
Starclimber. 2009. [Education Storage S.OP5D1993]

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt’s always wanted; convinced he’s lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist’s granddaughter that he realizes that the man’s ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials [Series]
The Golden Compass. 1996. [Education Storage S.P967N1996]
The Subtle Knife. 1997. [Education S Collection S.P967th]
The Amber Spyglass. 2000. [Education S Collection S.p967a]

Lyra Belacqua’s carefree life at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, who appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. Left in the care of the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, Lyra sets out for the top of the world to free her friend, Roger, from the Gobblers with the help of a rare, truth-telling golden compass.

Reeve, Philip. Fever Crumb [Series]
Fever Crumb. 2009. [CCB:S.R259f]
Web of Air. 2011.

The foundling Fever Crumb is the only female apprentice in the Order of Engineers, an organization that exists in an alternate future London where women are not considered capable of rational thought. When she leaves to assist archaeologist Kit Solent on a top-secret project, Fever discovers that she may be a Scrivener–a member of an inhuman race marked for execution–and that her missing memories are the key to a secret at the heart of London.

Reeve, Philip. Hungry City Chronicles [Series]
Mortal Engines. 2003. [CCB S.R259mo]
Predator’s Gold. 2004. [CCB S.R259pr]
Infernal Devices. 2005. [CCB S.R259i]
A Darkling Plain. 2007. [CCB S.R259d]

In the distant future, when cities move about and consume smaller towns, a fifteen-year-old apprentice named Tom saves his master, the historian Thaddeus Valentine, from an assassination attempt, only to be pushed–literally–out of London by the very man he admires. Stranded in the perilous Out-Country with the assassin, Tom must determine the truth about his world and save it from destruction.

Reeve, Philip. Larklight [Series]
Larklight. 2006. [Education S Collection S.R259la]
Starcross. 2007. [CCB S.R259s]
Mothstorm. 2008. [Education Storage S.R259m]

In an alternate Victorian London, Art Mumsby and his irritating sister Myrtle live with their father in a huge and rambling house called Larklight that just happens to be traveling through outer space. When a visitor called Mr. Webster arrives for a visit, it is far from an innocent social call. Before long Art and Myrtle are off on an adventure to the furthest reaches of space, where they will do battle with evil forces in order to save each other–and the universe.

Richards, Justin. The Death Collector. 2006. [CCB S.R391d]

What starts as an ordinary pick-pocketing incident in Victorian London unites three teens against a madman. Eddie is the pickpocket; George is an assistant at the British Museum; Elizabeth has a nose for trouble–and all of them are being hunted by Augustus Lorimore. Lorimore is a sinister factory owner, a villain bent on reanimating the dead, both humans and dinosaurs–and one of each is already terrorizing the streets of London. It’s up to Eddie, George, and Elizabeth to stop Lorimore’s monsters . . . or die trying.

Slade, Arthur. The Hunchback Assignments [Series]
The Hunchback Assignments. 2009. [Education S Collection S.Sl12h]
The Dark Deeps. 2010.
Empire of Ruins. 2011.

The mysterious Mr. Socrates rescues Modo, a hunchbacked child with an amazing ability to transform his appearance, from a traveling freak show. Mr. Socrates raises him in isolation as an agent for the Permanent Association, a spy agency behind Brittania’s efforts to rule the empire, then abandons the teenager on the streets of Victorian London. Modo encounters Association agent Octavia Milkweed, as well as the sinister machinations of Clockwork Guild, a mad scientist bent on turning the city’s orphans into zombies, and a plot against the British government that only he and Octavia can prevent.

Westerfeld, Scott. Leviathan [Series]
Leviathan. 2009. [CCB S.W523l]
Behemoth. 2010. [CCB S.W5233b]
Goliath. 2011.

At the cusp of WWI, the Austro-Hungarians and Germans are poised to pit their steam-driven Clankers, iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition, against the British Darwinists’ fabricated animals. Aleksandar Ferdinand, dethroned prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, makes an alliance with British airman Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service whose secret is in constant danger of being discovered. Aboard the Leviathan–a whale airship–the two unlikely allies begin a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

Wrede, Patricia C. Frontier Magic [Series]
Thirteenth Child. 2009. [CCB S.W925th]
Across the Great Barrier. 2011.

Eighteen-year-old Eff, who lives in an alternate version of the American West, must finally get over believing she is bad luck and accept that her special training in Aphrikan magic, and being the twin of the seventh son of a seventh son, give her extraordinary power to combat the magical creatures that threaten settlements on the frontier.

Yep, Laurence. City Trilogy [Series]
City of Fire. 2009. [Education S Collection S.Y43ci]
City of Ice. 2011.

In an alternate version of 1941, twelve-year-old Scirye’s older sister dies trying to prevent the theft of one of her people’s great treasures. Scirye sets out to avenge her and recover the precious item, and with the help of a street urchin, a dragon, and a tanuki, she pursues the thieves to Houlani, a new Hawaiian island being created by magic. Even with Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, on their side, they may not be able to stop Mr. Roland from gaining the Five Lost Treasures of Emperor Yu, which will give him the power to alter the very fabric of the universe.