23 Best Steampunk Books

steampunk

Steampunk is science fiction after a few LSD-laced absinthe jello shots; it can include alternate histories, vampires, time travel, magic, and romance. As long as you feature some technology suggestive of steam power, you can go as crazy as you want, and several writers on this list have done exactly that. For some reason, a large number of steampunk authors appear to live in Portland, Oregon.

Unique among science fiction genres, steampunk is also a distinctive fashion, complete with old-timey suits, corsets, brass goggles, and dangerous electrical devices.

 

1
Against the Day
by Thomas Pynchon – 2006

Against the Day is not a breezy read. This novel’s complexity and cast of over one hundred characters will challenge even the most ardent Pynchon fans.

It all begins in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, with an intrepid crew of young balloonists whose storybook adventures will bookend, interrupt, and sometimes even be read by, scores of somewhat more realistic characters over the next 30 years.

Against the Day is convoluted, meandering, and comes in at over 1,000 pages long, so if you dive in, take it slow and steady.

“Knotty, paunchy, nutty, raunchy… Pynchon remains the archpoet of death from above, comedy from below and sex from all sides.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

2
Agatha H and the Airship City
by Phil & Kaja Foglio – 2011

Phil & Kaja Foglio are the creators of the award-winning Girl Genius comic. Kaja has even come up with a different name for this whole subgenre (and I agree with her):

I called it Gaslamp Fantasy because, around the time we were bringing Girl Genius out, there was a comic called Steampunk on the shelves and I didn’t want any confusion. Plus, I’ve never liked the term steampunk much for our work, it’s derived from cyberpunk (a term which I think actually fits its genre well) but we have no punk, and we have more than just steam, and using a different name seemed appropriate.

The Industrial Revolution has escalated into all-out warfare. It has been eighteen years since the Heterodyne Boys—benevolent adventurers and inventors who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Today, Europe is ruled by the Sparks, dynasties of mad scientists ruling over—and terrorizing—the hapless population with their bizarre inventions and unchecked power, while the downtrodden dream of the Hetrodynes’ return.

At Transylvania Polygnostic University, a pretty, young student named Agatha Clay seems to have nothing but bad luck. Incapable of building anything that actually works, but dedicated to her studies, Agatha seems destined for a lackluster career as a minor lab assistant. But when the University is overthrown by the ruthless tyrant Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, Agatha finds herself a prisoner aboard his massive airship Castle Wulfenbach—and it begins to look like she might carry a spark of mad science after all.

3
Boneshaker
by Cherie Priest – 2009

Boneshaker combines steampunk with zombies in an alternate history version of Seattle, Washington. It was nominated for the 2009 Nebula and Hugo, and won the Locus Award in 2010.

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus, Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine was born.

But on its first test run, the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

“Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

4
Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley – 1818

It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.

It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.

I’ve included Frankenstein in steampunk because it’s science fiction that takes place in Victorian England (and Shelley didn’t even have to pretend).

5
Homunculus
by James P. Blaylock – 1986

Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, Homunculus is author Blaylock’s (one of the founding fathers of the modern steampunk movement) attempt to roll Edgar Allen Poe, H. G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson into one, and then outdo them all at their own game. He actually does a great job of it.

A dirigible with a dead pilot has been passing over Victorian London in a decaying orbit for some years, arousing the interest of the Royal Society, as well as scientist-explorer Langdon St. Ives and the evangelist/counterfeiter Shiloh. Shiloh is convinced that the dirigible carries his father, a tiny space alien, but withholds this knowledge from vivisectionist Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, who he is paying to reanimate Shiloh’s dead mother.

It gets crazier from there.

6
Lady of Devices
by Shelley Adina – 2011

Indie author Shelley Adina has acquired a devoted following for her steampunk adventures revolving around smart, brave heroines, and the Magnificent Devices series (of which Lady of Devices is book #1) is her most popular.

When her father gambles the estate on the combustion engine and loses, Claire finds herself down and out on the mean streets of London. But being a young woman of resources and intellect, she turns fortune on its head. It’s not long before a new leader rises in the underworld, known only as the Lady of Devices. When she meets Andrew Malvern, a member of the Royal Society of Engineers, she realizes her talents may encompass more than the invention of explosive devices. They may help her realize her dreams and his—if they can both stay alive long enough to see that sometimes the closest friendships can trigger the greatest betrayals . . .

7
Leviathan
by Scott Westerfeld – 2009

In this first book of the YA Leviathan trilogy, an alternate World War I is fought by steampunk machines and biopunk (i.e., genetically fabricated) monsters.

“Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”
-School Library Journal (starred review)

8
Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeve – 2001

If you’ve never read steampunk before, Mortal Engines is a good place to start. It begins like this:

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic world, ravaged in ages past by nuclear warfare, which caused massive geological upheaval. To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities, an engineer designed a system where entire cities became immense, moving vehicles known as Traction Cities, and must consume one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of natural resources.

9
Perdido Street Station
by China Miéville – 2000

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores.

“Miéville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic.”
-Publishers Weekly

10
Retribution Falls
by Chris Wooding – 2009

Sky piracy is a bit out of Darian Frey’s league. Fate has not been kind to the captain of the airship Ketty Jay—or his motley crew. They are all running from something. Crake is a daemonist in hiding, traveling with an armored golem and burdened by guilt. Jez is the new navigator, desperate to keep her secret from the rest of the crew. Malvery is a disgraced doctor, drinking himself to death. So when an opportunity arises to steal a chest of gems from a vulnerable airship, Frey can’t pass it up. It’s an easy take—and the payoff will finally make him a rich man.

But when the attack goes horribly wrong, Frey suddenly finds himself the most wanted man in Vardia, trailed by bounty hunters, the elite Century Knights, and the dread queen of the skies, Trinica Dracken. Frey realizes that they’ve been set up to take a fall but doesn’t know the endgame. And the ultimate answer for captain and crew may lie in the legendary hidden pirate town of Retribution Falls. That is, if they can get there without getting blown out of the sky.

“Beautifully crafted prose and some remarkably imaginative scenes …and Wooding’s sprawling, multifaceted world and rough-and-tumble action will delight steampunk fans.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

11
Soulless
by Gail Carriger – 2009

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a trio of social burdens. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire.Then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, 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 any treacle tart?

“Carriger debuts brilliantly with a blend of Victorian romance, screwball comedy of manners and alternate history… This intoxicatingly witty parody will appeal to a wide cross-section of romance, fantasy and steampunk fans.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

12
Steampunk
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – 2008

This anthology does an excellent job in providing an overview of the steampunk genre and what’s possible in it. Personally, only a few of the stories really stood out for me, but those that did blew the top of my head off, especially “Seventy-Two Letters” by Ted Chiang.

13
The Alchemy of Stone
by Ekaterina Sedia – 2008

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets—secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart—literally.

“Sedia’s exquisitely bleak vision deliberately skewers familiar ideas from know-it-all computers to talking statues desperate for souls, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions about the proper balance of tradition and progress and what it means to be alive.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

14
The Anubis Gates
by Tim Powers – 1983

The Anubis Gates is a steampunk classic that feels more fantasy than sci-fi, but it has time travel and won the Philip K. Dick award in 1984, so that’s good enough for me.

The book features an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, the protagonist Professor Brendan Doyle, who wanted none of this nonsense.

15
The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson – 1995

Set in twenty-first century Shanghai where nanotechnology affects all aspects of life, The Diamond Age is the story of what happens when a state-of-the-art interactive device falls in the hands of a street urchin named Nell. Her life—and the entire future of humanity—is about to be decoded and reprogrammed.

The Diamond Age is a different flavor of stemapunk steam because in a certain group of people have re-adopted Victorian values and morals, along with top hats, airships, and velocipedes

“Building steadily to a wholly earned and intriguing climax, this long novel, which presents its sometimes difficult technical concepts in accessible ways, should appeal to readers other than habitual SF users.”
–Publishers Weekly

16
The Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – 1990

The Difference Engine is widely regarded as having helped establish the genre conventions of steampunk.

It’s 1855, and the computer has arrived a century ahead of time due to Charles Babbage accomplishing his dream of creating both the Difference Engine and the more-advanced Analytical Engine.

Part detective story, part historical thriller, the adventure in The Difference Engine begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for.

17
The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman – 1995

Known as Northern Lights outside the US, The Golden Compass is a fantastic read: intelligent, inventive, and hard to put down. It’s the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and I strongly recommend all of them.

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. As she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.

“Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension.”
-Publishers Weekly

18
The Half-Made World
by Felix Gilman – 2010

The Half-Made World has enough steampunk influence to be known as a Steam Western, but it could also be categorized as New Weird.

The world is still only half-made. Between the wild shores of uncreation and the ancient lands of the East lies the vast expanse of the West—young, chaotic, magnificent, and war-torn.

Thirty years ago, the Red Republic fought to remake the West—fought gloriously, and failed. The world that now exists has been carved out amid a war between two rival factions: the Line, enslaving the world with industry, and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence. The Republic is now history, and the last of its generals sits forgotten and nameless in a madhouse on the edge of creation. But locked in one man’s memories is a secret that could change the West forever, and the world’s warring powers would do anything to take it from him.

Now Liv Alverhuysen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels west, hoping to heal the general’s shattered mind. John Creedmoor, reluctant Agent of the Gun and would-be gentleman of leisure, travels west, too, looking to steal the secret or die trying. And the servants of the Line are on the march.

“Vivid and accurate prose, a gripping, imaginative story, a terrifically inventive setting, a hard-bitten, indestructible hero, and an intelligent, fully adult heroine—we haven’t had a science-fiction novel like this for a long time.”
-Ursula K. Le Guin, National Book Award-winning author of The Farthest Shore and The Left Hand of Darkness

19
The Iron Duke
by Meljean Brook – 2012

I’m not happy at all about featuring a book with some himbo’s photoshopped abs on the cover. This is a SF list! WTF?

The Iron Duke is a romance, no way around it, but it’s also a really fun steampunk adventure.

It’s been nine years since the Horde, an oppressive empire from Asia, was run out of England. However, detective inspector Lady Wilhelmina Wentworth will never be able to escape their cruelty: her mother was raped during the invasion, and Mina is half Horde. Mina crosses paths with the revered Iron Duke Rhys Trahaearn, a former pirate captain who was instrumental in fighting the Horde, when a dead body is tossed on his estate.

“Airships, zombies, nanotechnology, outlandish secondary characters, and a complicated heroine…make for a complex, gripping read.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

20
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson – 1886

Stevenson’s stepson wrote: “I don’t believe that there was ever such a literary feat before as the writing of Dr Jekyll. I remember the first disease of the world though it were yesterday. Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.”

The rumor is that after some criticisms from his wife, Stevenson burnt this first draft, only to rewrite the story again in three to six days.

21
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells – 1895

A great old classic that invented the phrase “time machine.”

Just don’t watch the modern movie, because that ends in a fistfight for some reason.

22
The Time Ships
by Stephen Baxter – 1995

The Time Ships is the official sequel to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. It was authorized by the Wells estate to mark the centenary of the original’s publication, and, by all accounts, is actually really good.

The Time Traveller, driven by his failure to save Weena from the Morlocks, sets off again for the future. But this time the future has changed, altered by the very tale of the Traveller’s previous journey.

23
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne – 1870

Highly acclaimed when released and even now, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is regarded as one of the premiere adventure novels in literature and one of Verne’s greatest works, along with Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne himself has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979, between the English-language writers Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare.


 

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10 thoughts on “23 Best Steampunk Books

  1. Wow, how could you leave out Mark Hodder’s amazing Burton and Swinburne series? The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the first one.

    1. There seem to be few selections for adult readers on these lists. I’d remove the YA and Classics and add Burton & Swinburn, The Wake of the Dragon by Jaq D. Hawkins and a few other good ones.

  2. Where is K. W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices”…………. or the other steampunk required reading “Jack Faust”. Both brilliant

  3. Mike Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable triology are the first steampunk novels I read, back in
    in the early 1970s and should be included. Their importance should not be overlooked.

    The Johannes Cabal novels by Jonathan L Howard are also worth checking out.

    All in all, a very good selection of steampunk books.

  4. Awesome list, thanks for posting it! I love all things 19th century and have an unashamed soft spot for steampunk. But I hadn’t heard of some of the newer ones on here, and have added them to my reading list.

    If I may respectfully make one factual observation, you can’t really say Frankenstein is set in Victorian England, as Victoria didn’t ascend the throne until 1837. Frankenstein was written in Hanoverian England — the same period that of course produced another great world-class novelist, Jane Austen.

    Thanks!

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