Steampunk romance comes in many flavors, but the intensity of the stories varies enough that I’ve noticed a pattern. Some steampunk romances (and series) tend to be lighthearted, escapist fun while others explore darker settings and themes.
I wonder about the perception of light vs. dark in this genre. “Light” can imply stories with less depth or plot. The word “escapist” has negative connotations for some readers. Consequently, are steampunk romances that feature a darker tone viewed as more valid and meaningful? Do readers take them more seriously than their action-adventure focused, Edisonade cousins? And if so, why?
What do I mean by “dark”? Dark in a steampunk romance can include but isn’t limited to: graphic violence or sexual content; gritty/bleak/dystopian settings; disturbing steampunk gadgets/inventions/automatons; elements such as actual death and destruction (not just the threat of it); “Weird” elements; frequent and in-depth social commentary; and dangerous villains and heroes.
Dark steampunk romances tend to disturb rather than soothe readers. We’re invited to contemplate the darker side of human nature and romance as it relates to steam-powered technology. Here’s a short list of series and titles that veer toward the dark side (of course, your mileage may vary):
The Iron Seas series – Meljean Brook
London Steampunk series – Bec McMaster
Clockwork Agents series – Kate Cross
The Baskerville Affair series – Emma Jane Holloway
Full Steam Ahead – Natalie Gray
His Winter Heart – P.G. Forte
Clockwork Heart – Dru Pagliassotti
On the whole, in my reading experience, steampunk romances tend to be less dark than their SF/F counterparts. I wouldn’t mind a few more that explore intense or even extreme themes and elements, but on the other hand, steampunk romances that provide escapist adventure are more suited to satisfying a reader’s sense of sheer fun and relaxation.
How do I define “light” steampunk romances? Lighter steampunk romances include those with strong action-adventure elements; comedic elements; muted dangers (e.g., the villain aspect is more cool than dangerous and he/she may not even actually kill any main or secondary characters); stylized steampunk gadgets and inventions; quest stories; high concept stories, characters, and settings (e.g., Western steampunk romances); whimsical or lighthearted tone.
I’ve heard it argued that quite a few romance readers, especially after a challenging day, prefer to settle down with stories that do the work for them. In other words, stories that don’t overtax our grey matter. And that’s exactly what the lighter, sweetly romantic steampunk romances intend to deliver.
Here’s a short list of lighter steampunk romances (of course, your mileage may vary!):
Gaslight Chronicles series – Cindy Spencer Pape
The Glorious Victorious Darcys series – Beth Ciotta
The Ether Chronicles series – Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso
Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair – Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris
Iron Guns, Blazing Hearts – Heather Massey (that’s me!)
Wild Cards and Iron Horses – Sheryl Nantus
Island of Icarus – Christine Danse
I should note that author Delphine Dryden is penning a new steampunk romance series called Steam and Seduction. The first installment is Gossamer Wing. The cover conveys action-adventure elements and the blurb promises a spy story. I haven’t read it (yet!) so I can’t report if the story veers toward light or dark.
Perhaps the issue isn’t so much one of “choose this, or that,” but rather having enough variety in steampunk romance to suit our different moods and tastes.
In terms of light and dark tones, what kind of steampunk romances do you prefer?
About the author
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.