Steampunk is one of those genres where the mechanics are often along similar lines: alternate-history Victorian England, plus lots of gears, airships, and advanced technology that relies on steam power. It’s a nifty genre that’s tons of fun; however, if you’re looking for unique steampunk novels in the YA genre that think outside the gearbox, here are a few you might want to try on for size!
Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff
The plot: Seventeen-year-old Yukiko must bring an arashitora—a griffin, long thought extinct—back to the bonkers emperor. Failure means a death sentence, but finding a live griffin is just as dangerous. When her airship crashes far from home, Yukiko must rely on a crotchety griffin to make it back to the mainland and eventually join the plot to topple the emperor himself.
What makes it unique: It’s Japanese steampunk. Japanese steampunk! The whole tale is woven together with Japanese mythology and symbology, with rich, beautiful writing that’s never overdone. This world’s technology runs on fuel cultivated from the lotus plant, which spews horrific amounts of toxic smoke into the atmosphere to the point that regular citizens need breathing apparatuses just to go outside. The problems of pollution and the crushing rule of an empire that cares little for its own people make for a fully-realized (and often relatable) world.
Etiquette and Espionage, by Gail Carriger
The plot: In this series, Sophronia’s mother sends her to a very different kind of finishing school. She’s less than thrilled until she realizes that this floating fortress of a school has a staff of supernatural teachers, and instructs young ladies the finer points of espionage. Determined to stop one of her classmates from handing over an object to the school’s enemies, Sophronia and her friends tail one of her older classmates and plot to take her down.
What makes it unique: This school setting makes this story great; not only do the ladies learn espionage, but they’re congratulated when they use it successfully outside of class. And instead of focusing on the typically masculine nature of espionage, the school teaches Sophronia and the others to use one’s femininity as a weapon. They’re encouraged to study the latest fashions, and they work with the restrictions of style and society to conceal deadly weapons and abilities. The blend of supernatural elements with steampunk combine for a one-two punch better than any pummeling with a parasol.
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Keith Thompson
The plot: Forget alternate Victorian England; this story takes place in an alternate 1914 with Europe on the brink of war. The book follows Prince Aleksander and Deryn Sharp, two teens caught up in the pre-war conflict. Aleks is on the run from the same nationalists who killed his parents, with nothing but an old war machine and a small crew on his side. Deryn Sharp, a commoner, has disguised herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Of course, they cross paths and havoc ensues.
What makes it unique: Apart from the classically steampunk gadgets and modes of transport, there are all manner of fantastic beasties in this world. Genetically modified animals are an everyday and integral part of society. The largest beast of all, the Leviathan, is part airship, part whale. Oh, and the book is filled with absolutely wonderful drawings and illustrations—perfect for getting a grasp on the creatures and technology of this oh-so-strange world.
Extracted, by Sherry Ficklin & Tyler H. Jolley
The plot: The Tesla Institute (yes, that Tesla) trains teenage time travelers to protect the time stream from other time-travelers seeking to alter it. It’s a time-travel war, and the battlefields are everywhere and anywhere in time. One of these time-traveling teens is Lex, whose girlfriend dies during a mission gone wrong. The only way to save her is to alter the time-stream without changing his own past, which means going behind enemy lines for tech that can take him back. That’s when Lex runs into Ember. To their surprise, Lex and Ember know each other, and the pasts hidden from them both come flooding back. With the truth on their side, Lex and Ember have to work together to save their futures before the time war takes away their pasts—again.
What makes it unique: Time travel! Steam-powered mechanics are fun enough, but using it to jump through time and alter history? This story had me from page one. That, and some serious time spent on pondering the consequences and ethics of changing history. The icing on the Extracted cake is the fascinating and fun relationship between the two main characters, siblings each dedicated to their different sides in the time war.
Have any unique steampunk favorites? Tell us all about them!