Most of the present crop of steampunk romances can be divided into two subgroups: Steampunk set in a pseudo-Victorian England and steampunk using the American frontier experience as a backdrop. Badlands belongs to the second group, and the novella’s world-building is clearly one of its strengths. The second is a delectable hero.
In this version of 19th century US history, the country is divided after the Civil War. There are the technologically advanced and economically successful United States, the mostly agricultural Confederation, there is independent Texas, and then there are the Badlands – the wilderness beyond the Mississippi, which is ruled by a matriarchal society under a queen. The situation there is complicated by the fact that the Union is in the habit of dropping its convicts across the river, delivering the scum of the earth (some of them mechanically enhanced) to the Badlands on a regular basis.
At the start of the novella, the queen’s court is attacked without warning, and the queen killed. Ever, commander of the queen’s border guard, immediately leaves the battlefield, as now her duty is to secure the queen’s heir, Princess Laurette, who is at college in the Union at the moment – under an assumed name of course, but she might be in immediate danger as well. Ever escapes into the mountains and is picked up by the Dark Hawk, a cargo airship from the United States.
Captain Spencer Pierce of the Dark Hawk is indentured – ten years ago he traded his freedom for the promise of owning the ship after an allotted amount of profit made. He hopes this will be his last run before he gains freedom and the full ownership of the Dark Hawk after this run. When he sees the results of the battle, he knows he must return with his goods, and he is none to happy at first about picking up a refugee, even less when she insists he take her to Philadelphia as quickly as possible.
I really enjoyed the novel’s world-building. Seleste deLaney doesn’t just transpose historical values on some imaginary countries. Instead she tries to create a truly alien society. Ever is covered with tattoos and thinks nothing of running around with her upper body naked. Her sexual mores are also different from those outside the Badlands, which leads to some tension between her and the rest of the dirigible’s crew. Once she lands in Texas or the Union, she is truly a fish out of water. I would have loved to read far more of this, but couldn’t due to the novella’s limits in length.
I also liked the main protagonists. Both are mature – Ever is a seasoned warrior, and Spencer is an experienced commander and trader. Both know a good thing when they see it, and while there are misunderstandings – mostly due to cultural differences – they are not willful. Spencer is described as a “wiry little man with haunted eyes”, but he is subtly attractive – as Ever soon sees – and immensely capable. I loved him. Think Jean-Luc Picard (albeit with hair). Ever is less easy to empathize with at first, mostly because she is truly alien in several respects, even to modern sensibilities. But I appreciated that in her after a while, and her dedication is admirable.
Spencer’s ship is manned by a motley crew (obviously influenced by Star Trek, but in a good way), about whom the readers get little snippets of intriguing information and of whom I would have loved to see more. I may get the opportunity: There is a one-minute appearance of an extremely minor character who has “future hero” written all over him, so there could be a sequel.
Which leads me to what I didn’t like about the book: After a very promising beginning, it was far too hurried. Too much is resolved in too little space, thereby the characters and setting are sold short. With a more leisurely pacing, it could have been a truly delightful read.
In spite of this, I enjoyed Badlands on the whole. While I can’t recommend it quite wholeheartedly, it is a intriguing read for anyone who likes American-set steampunk romance.