Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.
Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.
Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.
There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.
Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.
The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.