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Best Steampunk Fantasy

Fantasy with Steampunkish Elements

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.


The Difference Engine

(William Gibson, Bruce Sterling)

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.”

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The Warlord Of The Air

(Michael Moorcock)

(Oswald Bastable)

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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20 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea

(Jules Verne)

(Extraordinary Voyages)

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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With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.

In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it. 

From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable. 

No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale. 

Available on Amazon & Audible, Barns & Noble, iTunes, Google, and Kobo.


The Time Machine

(H. G. Wells)

A mechanical contraption that lets you travel back in time. Classic steampunk from a classic author.

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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.

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Perdido Street Station

(China Mieville)

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.

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Awards Won:2010 LocusSF
Award Nominations:2009 NEBULA, 2010 HUGO

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.

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Death of a Necromancer

(Martha Wells)

This one fits in many different genres: part Victorian gothic mystery novel, part horror fantasy, and part revenge tale. The setting of the novel takes place in a Conan Doyle-style London. It’s not your standard fantasy, mystery, or steampunk, but the book delivers on all levels. The setting is a period-based one, but fuses a more technologically advanced setting than usual with a high fantasy one: think steam and sorcery here. I’ve heard some people describe it as “Ocean’s 11” mixed with “The Mummy” and “Colombo” and an adult Sherlock Holmes – an apt description of what you’re getting in the book. What I quite like about Wells is her ability to draw some unforgettable personalities and characters; each character fits a certain role (confident, arrogant, sexy, bold, etc) yet still remains a real personality – you never forget that a character is real. The relationships between characters are a joy to behold as well – some of the arguments and bickering between them will have you laughing.

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The Windup Girl

(Paolo Bacigalupi)
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Award Nominations:2010 BSFA

More science fiction than fantasy novel so this one could be categorized as a cyberpunk, but one that still should be mentioned. The world of The Windup Girl is one of a dystopian future where man has destroyed the environment, and only a few economies still survive the predations of corporate warfare: Thailand being one of them. It is in Thailand that the stories of several people are told. In a world where energy sources have run out (no more petrol), power is generated by futuristic mechanical springs that are wound up by bio-engineered beasts. An interesting premise and one that’s executed perfectly; The Windup Girl is a poignant look at a future gone wrong, destroyed by greedy corporations, and a look at a discarded woman’s What makes this novel compelling for all the bleakness is that it’s a world that’s lost hope, but hope still remains as the key characters struggle to make sense of their world. Most disturbing, perhaps a terrifyingly accurate look at the future (Montisango) is the book’s Calorie Companies – food corporations that manufacture grains that are sterile, so you can’t grow your own. At the book’s core is a simple question: what does it mean to be human? To be human is to make uneasy choices and it is these very choices that make you human. A great novel all round.

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Awards Won:1983 PKD
Award Nominations:1984 LocusF, 1985 BSFA

This book can appear on many different lists under the guise of a number of different subgenres. It’s a great starting point into the steampunk genre, being a very accessible read. You won’t find a story with a zanier cast of eccentric characters, including: English teachers, mad historical poets, werewolves, Egyptian sorcerers, and…time travel.

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A YA adult classic steampunk novel that’s just as entertaining for adults. The story follows the airship pilot Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy, and nascent heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Prince Aleksander, during the start of an alternate World War 1. This is true steampunk, with one side of the conflict using mechanical war machines and roving mechanical airships, while the opposing side employs bio-engineered living creatures (living airships and beasts). It’s a fascinating story and one that both the kiddies and the adults will enjoy, easily transcending the YA/kid border.

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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.

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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.

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Heart Of Veridon

(Tim Akers)
(The Burn Cycle)

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.

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Award Nominations:2010 CLARKE

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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A well-regarded fantasy tale and has received heaps of critical praise. If you haven’t read this series (His Dark Materials) yet, regardless of whether you’re interested in steampunk or not, shame on you! This is considered a modern fantasy classic, right up there with Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. I would actually say this series is sort of the anti-Narnia series, with a very agnostic bent to it. Back to why this series is steampunk. His Dark Materials has quite a few elements of steampunk: fantastical mechanical devices powered by mysterious energy, grand airships, an alternative 19th century British setting. You can also add magical creatures, parallel worlds, and talking animals to the mix.

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Award Nominations:2004 LocusF, 2004 WFA

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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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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Award Nominations:2008 CAMPBELL

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.

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