Best Steampunk Fantasy

Fantasy with Steampunkish Elements
Cogwheels and Spells: Exploring the Best of Steampunk Fantasy

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy that often juxtaposes the ultramodern with the antique; typically, the stereotypical steampunk features a mishmash of futuristic technology combined with Victorian-age mechanics (airships, gear-based technology, steam-powered technology, etc). While the setting may be futuristic, the cultural mores borrow from the age of the Victorian gentleman. In this setting, there may be some lone visionary eccentric/mad genius as the protagonist – the unrecognized Newton, Charles Babbage, or other inventor-cum-hero type.

The genre originated in the 80s and blends together a number of genres and subgenres, including science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, mystery, and horror. Generally, it incorporates a setting where some form of other power is used to power society – usually steam power or some other power source, like magic. The setting is usually Victorian-era Britain, though it may also be based in the American Wild West or even some post-apocalyptic future setting. The technology used is usually anachronistic technology or some sort of future technology that Victorian-era people might have invented, if not with steam-technology, certainly in  design, form, and  style. Quite often, there is a Victorian perspective on fashion, art, style, and even morals (ladies act like Victorian ladies in manners and dress, and men follow the same Victorian rules and regulations that guided gentlemen).

While the fantastical clockwork and steam-powered creations  may be a common steampunk theme, there may be other styles of steampunk. For example, you may have the juxtaposition of high science with magic or futuristic technology combined with mechanical contraptions. Steampunk may be fantasy-based, science fiction-based, or a blend between both genres. Typically, the inclusion of magic would categorize steampunk as fantasy steampunk, while the inclusion of high technology but no magic would make it science fiction. Do check out our Guide to the Steampunk Genre for more info about this genre and more recommendations.

Steampunk is one of the most interesting subgenres of fantasy and it’s often one of the least explored by authors. Quite often, the fantastical clockwork and steam-powered creations are more visually compelling vision of the future/past than the plasticized circuit-driven technology of the present or distant future that typical sci-fi books explore.

There are a number of great steampunk fantasy works out there, both classic, modern, and futuristic.This list seeks to give you a reading list of the best classic steampunk works and the best modern steampunk.

A classic – perhaps THE classic steampunk novel, penned by two of the genre’s founders: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The premise of this novel is a simple “What If” question. That question being “What if Charles Babbage had actually developed a real computer during the Victorian age – instead of the partially completed gear-based one he actually developed.”
Steampunk has been around for a few decades, though it’s only the past few years that it’s established its very own subgenre. The Warlord of the Air is a classic of the 70s, penned by the great Michael Moorcock. The premise is an Edwardian-era British solider is transported into an alternate future sometime during the late 20th century. In this alternate-reality, the World Wars never happened and the technology is steam-based.

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Other writers may dabble in Victorian-era fantasy, but for the “original” Victorian-era fantasy writer, Jules Verne is the authentic deal, actually being a Victorian-age science fiction writer. 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is very much a Steampunk science-fiction and perhaps one of the great inspirations for all modern steampunk works.

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While not “strictly” a steampunk, this is one of the first science fiction novels, the ultimate science-gone-wrong story, and Victor Frankenstein is the quintessential mad-scientist, harnessing the power of a storm to create the Frankenstein creature.
The famous (or infamous, depending how you view the New Weird movement) novel is generally considered one of the founding pillars of the New Weird genre. This novel meets many of the criteria of Steampunk as well, with steam-powered technology the driving technological force in the novel. The sequels, The Scar and Iron Council, would also be considered Steampunk, being set in the same universe. Mieville’s newest novel, RailSea, a post-apocalyptic steampunk world, might fit the mold as well. While Perdido Street Station is not a novel for everyone (it is classified as New Weird and it’s no accident that this subgenre features “Weird” as part of the description), it’s an astounding novel in many ways, and certainly a compelling steampunk vision of the future. The novel took home a slew of awards, including the august Arthur C Clark Award and the Derleth Award.

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I like to try and include different types of books on these lists and for a comic steampunk (they generally tend to be so…serious), Girl Genius deserves a nod. The story follows Agatha Heterodyne, the heir to the Maddest of Mad Scientist families. You get a healthy dose of some mad steampunk technology, and some serious humor thrown in as well.
This one is for the discerning steampunk reader who loves a well-thought-out tale, great writing, and an interesting premise. Set in an alternative American Civil War, a son’s quest to clear his father’s wrongly maligned name, a mother’s quest to save her son, and zombies? This is the premise of Boneshaker, an all-out engrossing read and a thoughtfully human tale to boot. A machine (boneshaker) accidently destroyed part of Seattle during a gold rush when it tapped into a hidden vein of gas underground, which turned residents into the living dead. The affected area has been walled up for 15 years. Now, a young man seeks to reclaim his father and grandfather’s name, both having been linked to the Boneshaker event that caused such catastrophe. To do so, both he and his mother will travel into the walled city itself and meet a host of eclectic allies and horrific enemies, while making a frightful discovery… It’s the first book in a series and one that you shouldn’t miss if you want to read some quality steampunk that blends fantasy, alternate history, science fiction and horror. This is a book for those who want some real literary steampunk, not pulp steampunk.

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Unlike the typical steampunk,, Neal Stephenson’s masterpiece does not feature steam and clockwork technology, but futuristic nano-technology that’s pervaded society on every level. This novel is so much more than just “another look” at an alternate future; it’s a vision of a future world in which Victorianism is a political fashion that people choose to adopt; an era in which the future has re-adopted classic values rather than evolved new ones. Basically, Stephenson’s vision of the future is one in which the ultra modern is juxtaposed with the antique, both in culture and technology.
A delightful blend of different genres with elements of steampunk, mystery, and Gothic tossed in. It's a unique story that really showcases Well's talents. Death of a Necromancer is Well's best book (some might argue that her Wheel of the Infinite is her best). This is one of those stories that literally drags you along with the non stop action of it, yet still manages to develop complex and empathetic characters.Expect fast paced action, strongly developed relationships between characters, and unforgettable personalities. The author's talent for short yet expressive prose is to be lauded; she has the remarkable ability to paint a complex scene or nuanced dialogue with only a few strokes of her pen; what takes lesser authors a page to do, Well's can do in a few lines.Death Of A Necromancer is fun, dramatic, and one hell of a rip-roaring adventure from start to finish. It's one of the best, most exciting stand alone fantasy books in the genre. If you haven't read it yet, make sure you do.

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In creating this world, Powers borrowed ideas from all over the place. Mythology, Ancient Egyptian theology, quantum theory, and classical literature“ they're all used in The Anubis Gates. It's a ridiculous combination of ideas, but it's the reason why this book is so entertaining. Why it made the list It's clear that Powers is an ambitious writer. He has zero qualms about chucking whatever he can into the mix. He doesn't even seem concerned about it making sense. And yet, it does. With the diverse concepts thrown around in the book, the plot is complex. But you'll never feel lost it in. It's a testament to his talent that he's able to create clarity out of chaos. This is also a title that comfortably sits between many genres, without veering too far in any direction. There's just enough humor to keep it entertaining without turning it into a Pratchett-style spectacle. There are enough thrilling moments to keep you entertained without it becoming a (pre-born-again) Anne Rice novel. While the characters in The Anubis Gates aren't the well drawn, the plot is excellent, and unpredictable and will keep you guessing until the end“ where the loose threads are pulled together into a tight “and satisfying“ conclusion.

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If you like

the rip-roaring adventure of The Anubis Gate, another tale that comes to mind is On Stranger Tides which is another awesome standalone novel by Time Powers (and the source material for the new-upcoming 4th Pirates of the Caribbean movie). You can also give Powers' other novels(all standalone) a shot too. They're always a mix of the fantastic and the tangible with a good dose of (sometimes weird) adventure thrown in. And if you like the whole "mythical elements coming to life" aspect of The Anubis Gate,then read Mythago Wood which is a novel about ancient myths coming to life. Neil Gaiman's American Gods and his excellent Anansi Boys are two other books in which anthropomorphized ancient myths struggle to coexist with modernity.

A steampunk fantasy with a lot of oomph to it. It’s an alternative history story, one that merges the period history of World War 1 events with a fantastical world where there are airships made from bioengineered creatures and mechanical wizardry. Into this strange world, we follow Deryn Sharp, a young woman disguised as a boy, for only men can serve in the army. Westerfield creates an interesting alternate history – a sort of steampunk version of World War 1, if you will. In this world, we see a host of strange creatures and machines. But what really drives the novel forward is not the interesting setting, but the strong characters. The Prince Aleksandar and the disguised-as-a-boy girl, Deryn, make for an interesting pair with a dynamic relationship (both are on different sides of the war, yet team up together). There’s a lot of suspense and action in the story and it’s one you definitely do not want to miss.
An interesting addition to the steampunk world, one that re-imagines the classic American West with a steampunk twist. This one is action-packed and has one of the more unique world-building conceits I’ve read yet. The basic premise to this story is that the world is not yet finished – on the furthest boundaries of the world, the creation has been put on standby while the two demon powers of the world, the Gun and the Line, battle it out, using humans as their soldiers and distinct technology. The Line are demon-driven, steam-powered locomotive engines that control humans while the Gun are demons that imbue a few chosen humans with supernatural reflexes (think the lone American gun slingers with supercharged powers) and magic-powered guns to fight off the numerically and technically superior Line forces. I found this novel a unique take on the steampunk genre and an action-packed read, for those looking for some action steampunk that combines magic and technology.
This fantasy-heavy steampunk is set in a world where the industrial revolution is just getting started. Science and magic (like in many steampunk books) are competing for supremecy. One woman holds the key to either victory. Elliot really has the world-building gift, having done a superb job building a vast world in The Crown of Stars series and another series, Crossroads.
The city of Veridon is one built of machinery; the city is built on technology which often floats down the river, with the pieces being salvaged. The city itself cannot be re-created as the technologies are only borrowed from what floats down the river. A great expedition was launched to find what lay up the river, but nothing has returned, until now – a single cog on a zepliner that falls from the sky. Only, something has followed the cog back. This book is a fantastic blend of a few genres: steampunk, urban fantasy, and crime-noir. The pages are packed with haunting imagery, surrounded by a compelling plot that keeps you turning the pages. It takes a while for the plot to get going (and for the reader to understand how everything fits together into this new world), but once it does, it’s a gripping ride.
Wooding’s awesome entry into the modern steampunk genre created some pretty big waves in the fantasy world with the release of Retribution Falls in 2009. The story follows the adventures (or rather, misadvantures) of the roguishly charming Darian Frey, captain of the Ketty Jay and eccentrically dysfunctional crew. Captain and crew are pirates who make a great sport of stealing and smuggling; things go seriously wrong, however, when they are framed for a crime they actually did not commit and embark on a quest to prove their innocence before they are caught by the law. This makes for a wildly funny and entertaining tale that blends fantasy, science fiction, western, and steampunk. And the whole thing just works.

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A steampunk that combines steampunk, paranormal mystery, comedy, and romance – a new twist on the genre. Soulless, like the title suggests, follows the story of Miss Alexia Tarabotti, a headstrong young woman who has no soul – and no suitor to match. I’ve included this entry on the list because it’s an eclectic blending of genres and subgenres that don’t normally combine; during the course of the story you’ll encounter air ships, werewolves, vampires, and a woman’s witty take on the way fashion should be. Set in a charming Victorian London and featuring a funny cast of eclectic characters, this novel is a strange but tasty brew. Fans of some light-hearted steampunk who don’t mind seeing paranormal and romance mixed in should love this. Hardcore, serious steampunk fans might not, however.

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Another Young Adult entry that transcends differences to appeal to all ages. The premise of the novel takes place within the Worldshaker, a self-contained world aboard a Juggernaut ship. Col, a young man of privilege who is set to take over his grandfather's august post as advisor to Queen Victoria, has his world shattered when he meets Riff, a young woman who is found hiding in his cabin, after escaping from another section of the city, part of the sub-human (treated) cast that make up the city's labor force. The story is funny and pretty witty and makes for an entertaining read. While the story doesn't break any new ground and the characters are not as well developed as they should be, it's nevertheless a compelling read, one that your kids will really enjoy (and you will too).

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A world where the heroes of science are literally the masters of the world. Enter Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton, masters of the new science of…magic? The basic premise to this series is that Isaac Newton, instead of discovering the secrets of Calculus, discovered the secrets of alchemy and magic. Throw in a number of other historic figures (and not necessarily from the exact same time) who all end up either affected by or meddling with the new secrets of Alchemy. This series is also a cautionary tale of man’s inability to balance morality with scientific discovery and the consequence of this. It’s an interesting story and one that combines quite a few real historical details with the fantastical. The female characters in particular are well drawn by Keyes – they are far from the simple cardboard cutouts that usually populate fantasy, especially considering that the series is over a decade old.

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If you like the alternative American history theme of the novel, then read Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series which is also set in an alternate colonial America where magic works. If you want the alternate American history without magic, give Harry Turtledove a try.

A young girl's journey of magic and discovery that will take her to the ends of the earth...and beyond.  His Dark Materials is a modern classic that can be enjoyed by old and young alike; This is "Narnia" for the 21st century. It's made my Top 25 best fantasy books list. Like Garth Nix's Abhorson trilogy, these are children's fantasy books that every adult should read.

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Since His Dark Materials is the anti-Chronicles of Narnia, it makes sense that you should read The Chronicles of Narnia . C.S. Lewis' masterpiece Narnia is a classic of the genre. While it's very clearly a Christian allegory, it can be enjoyed without reading too deep into the Christian subtext. The writing is great and it's a great magical adventure for both kids and adults. 

I also suggest reading Garth Nix's The Abhorsen Trilogy . Garth Nix is a fabulous writer and Abhorson is a chilling horror fantasy that really sucks you in. It's YA (young adult) but don't let that stop you! Garth Nix's newest series,Keys to the Kingdom , is also a great read, both for the kiddies and adults, one of the better series for kids. 

Don't forget to read Jonathan Stroud's very impressive The Bartimaeus Trilogy It's an action packed thrill ride about a magician's apprentice who manages to summon a powerful genie (Bartimaeus). Bartimaeus is less then pleased with this turn of events and tries to sabotage his young master at every opportunity. Hilariously funny, at times very dark, with great writing, a great cast of well-developed characters, and an interesting world, Bartimaeus is a must read series (for both kids and adults). 

And finally, Harry Potter. I won't bother explaining why. You might note that each of these YA books can be read by children, but at the same time they are equally entertaining for adults. And every one of the books mentioned starts of pretty lighthearted but becomes quite dark in tone and content. While this may not be great for 6 year old Johnny who is wondering why his hero dies a horrible death, it makes for a more sophisticated plot. The sweet is not as sweet without having the bitter.

 If you are specifically looking for books your kid might like, i suggest you visit The Top 10 Fantasy Books for Kids list.

A world that’s just on the cusp of the industrial revolution, but one not powered by electricity, but magic. It is aether, not electricity, that powers everything, from telegrams to clocks. However, for the most part, the industrial revolution has failed to take off, as the secrets to aether are jealously guarded by guilds who maintain a power monopoly over the substance. This control has stagnated society; social mobility is unheard of and there are some devastating side affects to aether – some babies are born with strange deformities. It’s a raw take on an alternative Dickensian world and an engrossing world. This book makes for some heavy reading, but it’s worth it.

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J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The Swan's War trilogy seems both similar to, yet different from Lord of the Rings. The mysterious and rare nature of magic is a trait shared by both books, as is the beautiful prose that seems half poetry, half fiction (though Russell's work is more “modern and novelistic”).

Credit goes to the author for his unique imagination here. There are a lot of Blade-Runner-esque noir cyberpunk aspects to this story with a lot of gothic added in. Throw in werewolves, zombies, and a city powered by the dead, and you have the backdrop for an interesting story. Think detective fiction meets Blade Runner meets The Dresden Files.

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A universe of gears, literally. Mainspring really explores the idea of a gear-based universe to the extreme with the universe a giant clockwork being wound up by a mainspring, first having been wound up by God, but now abandoned. Young clockmaker apprentice Hethor Jacquest must find the Key Perilous so the mainspring can be wound up again, or the world will perish.This is a steampunk novel with a huge vision that doesn’t always work, but the idea itself is pretty grand. However, the execution leaves a lot wanting – I found part of the book pretty boring and the motivations of the characters did not always make sense. Worth a mention if you are looking for grand-idea based steampunk.