This is the third Alan Shaw book and you do ideally need to read the other two first. I’ve already reviewed book 1 and book 2.
Grave Purpose is the third book in Craig Hallam’s steampunk trilogy. Craig has really grown as an author as the series has progressed, getting ever more thoughtful and impressive as he goes along.
The main character – Alan Shaw – started out as one of those have a go hero types, the kind of dashing, quipping, risk taking young man who dominates the action genre. From the beginning, Craig has brought other elements into his work – class especially in the first book, and colonialism in the second as he slowly unpicks the trope he’s working with.
In book three, we take a hard look at the implications of the action hero lifestyle. Alan is getting older. His various injuries have taken a toll and he isn’t magically free from the consequences of his actions. This is very much a novel about consequences and pain. If you like being hurt by authors (you know who you are) then get in there, this book is for you. I found it a very powerful read, although I did call Craig a whole selection of less than perfectly polite things while I was reading it. I know Craig well enough to be able to picture the evil smile this comment will elicit.
There’s a big issue here around disability representation. In real life, most disabled people don’t start out that way. Many people who suffer do so as a consequence of accidents or illnesses. It’s not something we see anything like enough of in stories. Mostly what we get in the action genre are impossible people doing outrageous things with no real consequences. Or we get unrealistic fantasies about recovery. I really appreciated getting to see the consequences. As a person who lives with pain, it was meaningful to me to see a fictional character living with pain. I felt Craig handled this aspect of the book superbly, and I think this is a depiction people who struggle will find resonant.
The story itself is full of action, mysteries to solve and consequences. I did mention the consequences?
There is more to a community than a bunch of people doing a thing. Workplaces are not usually also communities. These days, where you happen to live might well not give you any sense of community either. I think the key thing that gives us a feeling of community is the experience of being involved in each other’s lives. It doesn’t mean we have to live under scrutiny or in intense proximity or do all of our things with just the one group of people. However, when we do an array of things with the same people, and when there’s a feeling of connectedness, that can be really powerful.
I think I’m starting to see that happen around The Folk of Gloucester. There are people who are involved for love of history and the building. The desire to do something good for Gloucester as a place, and for the people of Gloucester, the desire to volunteer and to help in some way is a factor for many. There are a lot of folk drawn in by the steampunk events and the space to do steampunk stuff. There are other people drawn in by the folk side and the opportunity to do folk stuff. A number of us are looking at how to grow and expand all of that. There are a number of people connecting with each other in multiple ways.
More venues are becoming involved – in Gloucester and further afield, and the whole thing overlaps with Stroud steampunk shenanigans and also has connections into the wider steampunk community. There are a lot of Gloucester-connected folk involved with my online event at the weekend and there are all kinds of creative collaborations springing up because of our shared connections with the venue.
One of the reasons I think this is going to turn into something remarkable, is that so many people are moving towards this space with the clear intention of making something. Building connections, relating to each other in a range of ways, supporting each other in making good stuff happen… Something truly special is going on and I look forward to seeing what strange eggs it will hatch in the months (and maybe years) to come.
These brief days and long nights lend themselves to introspection. If you aren’t overwhelmed by the practical realities of winter, it can be a good time to turn inwards, to reflect and contemplate. With the changing of the calendar year it is an especially good time to consider where we are in our lives, where we’ve been and where we might be going. For me, contemplation has always been an important part of the Druid path, and is part of how I undertake to live consciously and deliberately.
The first half of 2022 was a series of disasters and setbacks for me. I was bodily ill to the point of not being able to function at all, some of the time. The physical unwellness certainly contributed to the abysmal state of my mental health. I had some personal things go badly awry that altered what had been two relationships I was previously really invested in. I’ve had to do some serious thinking about how to deploy my time, who to invest my energy in and how I want to proceed with my life. One of these experiences really dented my confidence, especially around being humorous or playful, and that’s taken a lot of rebuilding.
The first half of the year also brought an enormous blessing in the form of David Bridger. He sent me some of his books when I was ill, and I was instantly smitten with his ideas. I sent him something of mine, and this led him to ask if I’d like to write with him. Hell yes! Thanks to David’s gentle support and guidance I was able to keep writing during a period of deep depression.
Many things changed for me during the summer. I started getting on top of the anaemia that had been making me desperately ill. My periods settled down a bit so that I wasn’t losing as much blood in the first place. Other things shifted that are still a bit too much like fledglings for me to talk about, but this autumn brought considerable riches of heart and mind, and I found myself inspired again, hopeful again and creating. We had a lot of good gigs with The Ominous Folk, my son wrote his first song for the band. This flurry of gig activity also brought Robin Burton into my life, and while it’s early days on that score, we’re shaping up well as a folk duo and I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes.
Taken as a whole, the challenges and hard times are already fading into the background. Memories of 2022 will be dominated by gigs and events, and the delight that is the rapidly growing Gloucestershire steampunk community. This was the year I became a musician again, getting back to the viola and pushing to be able to play. This was the year I made sense of parts of myself, my body, my mind that had been challenging to me in the past. I will look back at this year and remember time spent with the people I love most.
My latest bit of upcycling. The white fabric came from some old shirts that needed repurposing. Last week I came home from the Gloucester event with a new dress – a decidedly rare occurrence. I knew when I bought the dress that I might well want a petticoat for it. Then at the weekend I found out that we are going to be performing at Stroud Goodwill Evening on Friday night, and I wanted to wear the new dress, and I felt the urgent need for the petticoat.
And here we are. Quite a lot of hand sewing later. I like that it’s somewhat irregular.
I seem to be being a bit more overtly femme at the moment. Although I’ll always be a scruffy sort of goblin, I might on occasion be a scruffy goblin in a nice dress and petticoats. As a much younger human I was more overtly gender fluid, moving between very distinct kinds of gender presentation, depending on mood. As I seem to be going through a bit of a reboot period at the moment it will be interesting to see whether any more of that comes back.
Part of this is definitely a consequence of gigging. It’s good to be visually striking and more theatrical, and we’ve all been digging in with the performance kit this year. James has really gone for it, and that’s been a real inspiration for me.
At the weekend, I was involved with some alternative festive revels as part of Gloucester Steampunks event at The Folk of Gloucester. It was brilliant, we had mummers and morris, The Whitby Krampus team came down, there were carols, and assorted Father Christmas figures, a Lord of Misrule and a parade. Alongside this, more regular steampunk shenanigans included tea duelling and teapot racing and of course music in the evening which I also contributed to.
The parade was a remarkable thing. There’s a lot of drama when you have a few people in krampus outfits. There’s a lot of noise when you have several morris sides. We had a glorious array of festive figures, and more regular steampunks. As we progressed through the streets, people fell back to watch, photograph and film our progress.
It was good, bringing colour and mayhem to the streets of Gloucester. It felt like re-enchantment. A lot of things do at the moment, for me. It was good to be out there bringing surprise, mayhem and mischief into the streets. It’s also a powerful way of reminding people that change is possible, and when a bunch of people get together with intent, amazing things can and do happen.
(Photo thanks to Susie Roberts, shows James and I at the tail end of the parade.)
The Conjuror Girl is a new trilogy from steampunk author Stephen Palmer. It may be slightly more accurate to describe it as a really big book in three volumes and for that reason I’m reviewing the set together.
The story centres round an orphan girl living in an alternate late Victorian setting. She’s Monique in the first book, and changes her name to Monica in an attempt to redefine herself in book 2. In writing this tale, Stephen has drawn heavily on the harsh realities of life for vulnerable children. Class-based inequalities, gender inequality, and the historic lack of opportunity for girls and women are strong themes in these books. Rather unusually, Stephen explores the impact of internalising these kinds of issues. We see a lot of stories about plucky girls defying the norms of their times, but Monica is impacted in her sense of self by classism and sexism while trying to resist it, and I think this is really well explored.
There are several other key themes across the books, and they’re inter-related. One is selfishness, and how we relate to the world if we let selfishness dominate. The person who wants to shape the world inline with their own preferences is inevitably at risk of being out of touch and disconnected from reality. But at the same time, the person who wants to create and to change things has to enter that territory. The antidote to this lies in friendship, and in supporting each other. Stephen’s characters depend on reflecting truths back to each other, keeping each other grounded in a sense of self that includes other people’s perceptions. No one is allowed to drift off in a cloud of their own ego. It’s an interesting commentary on relationship and mental health and how vital it is that we are honest with each other.
This is a series with strong steampunk elements and a fair amount of the charmingly fantastical. In this version of history, Paris was lost to monumental flooding caused by a magician. French refugees live in the UK. Our central character knows little of these things and is slowly piecing together how her world works and trying to figure out where she fits. In a world where allegedly only men can be magicians, a conjour girl is going to have challenges. This isn’t your usual magic school narrative, as Monica mostly has to learn on the run and by making things up as she goes along.
The main character is in her mid teens. It would be a suitable read for a teen, but I think the assumed reader is an adult. It doesn’t read like YA to me, although that’s not a genre I’m massively up to speed with.
The plot is highly engaging and keeps moving at a good pace throughout, providing surprises aplenty. The fantastical elements are original and its easy to suspend your disbelief and go along with them. The alternate Victorian England Stephen offers is rich with strange and curious things and is a pleasing place to spend time. The books run on from each other, so spare yourself some frustration and buy all three at once.
One of the things we always end up doing at steampunk events is trying to come up with pithy explanations for what steampunk is. There are always curious people with questions. And for every steampunk there’s a different answer – much as there’s a lot of diversity when Pagans try to explain what Paganism is.
It struck me that one of the things steampunk is, is a space where no one will ever judge you for being too weird. I didn’t look especially Victorian when this occurred to me – I was wearing a hand made waistcoat inspired by Japanese boro and sashiko, some knickerbocker type trousers and some devil horns. These days I mostly go to steampunk events wearing my clothes, rather than having specific steampunk attire. It seems to work.
I’m used to being too weird. It’s come up a lot during my life. I’m too emotional, too intense and also too emotionally unavailable (good, isn’t it?). I’ve spent a lot of time finding round holes in which to be an awkward square peg. I’ve been told off for giving too much, caring too much, trying too hard. I’ve been told how I hug is weird. There’s very little about me that hasn’t faced serious criticism at some point, and it does make me socially anxious.
Steampunk gatherings are spaces where I don’t feel socially anxious. Part of that is having the confidence that no one is going to accuse me of being too-anything or have a problem with me on those terms. I would be prepared to bet that being too-something is an issue I have in common with a lot of steampunks. For everyone else, the desire to be polite and inclusive will incline them to be less judgy anyway.
I’m seeing ever more memes online that suggest if people demand that you be smaller, you tell them to find someone else for that. It’s a new thought for me. Perhaps I don’t owe it to anyone to turn up as a small, comfortable thing for their benefit. There are spaces where I don’t have to be small to fit in. There are people who are neither offended nor intimidated by enthusiasm, passion, delight, silliness or anything else I might happen to have going on. There is charm in being around people who are at least as bonkers as I am.
I’ve spent a long time carrying all of this as a failing in myself. I was fourteen when my first boyfriend told me that I was too serious and too much and he turned out to be the first of many. I’ve been trying to tuck parts of myself in, to be tidier and more acceptable ever since – but I’m not very good at it. I’m used to thinking of how I am as being likely to cause offence, that I am inherently flawed and difficult to put up with. But not for everyone. In recent years I’ve started to figure out who my people are. I don’t hang around so much for the ones who might grudgingly accept me and I no longer feel grateful to the people who manage that grudging acceptance.
In steampunk spaces, people do not judge each other for being too weird, and that’s wonderful and liberating and I’m very glad of it. Good things happen when we make more space for each other. Especially when we make room for delight and enthusiasm that doesn’t show up in the ways we’re used to. I’m tired of joylessness, of cynicism and apathy being benchmarks for being a proper grownup.
This is a photo from one of my new ventures. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, and at the recent Steampunk event in Gloucester I was able to pull a team together for some improvisation-heavy theatre. I’ve wanted to do scratch theatre in a steampunk context for ages. It has to be a bit cobbled together because we weren’t able to meet before the event for rehearsals and this would always be the way of it with steampunks travelling from all over the place to events.
I wrote an outline. Craig Hallam brought poems – the setup was a literary salon run by a psychopath (me, being Mrs Beaten) with Craig as Hopeless Maine poet Algernon Lear. Other cast members took on characters suitable to the setting, while John Bassett played Reverend Davies.
I’ve been dabbling with plays for years – mostly mumming plays, which are short, anarchic folk plays with a format around death and rebirth. Usually I write characters based either on traditional material, or for the person who will be playing the part. Getting to see someone bring to life a character I did not write for them has been an affecting sort of experience.
For me, what’s most exciting in this kind of creative project is the mix of trust and uncertainty. I knew I had a great team, and they were willing to trust me that we could do this thing. We had a framework, but no one really knew how any of it would work or what would happen in the moment. And there were some wonderful moments with people interacting, sparring verbally, or at one point literally sparring with a cane and a massive spoon… When people collaborate amazing things can and do happen.
We made a space and a possibility. We held that space between us, and supported each other in being entertaining and funny and a bit weird, and I am really happy with how it all went. There will be more of this, and it means I can include more people.
I’m trying to make sense of myself to figure out how to navigate life in ways that are more comfortable for me. In recent years, I’ve had quite a few people suggest to me that I might be autistic, and it’s something I’ve been looking at, because there are certainly areas of overlap.
I struggle with social situations. As a child I could see there were rules for interaction but had no idea what they were. As a teen I did a bit better in geek spaces, and favoured spaces where music or dance dominated, because these are things I can do. I’m fine if the structure is overt – as in a class or a folk club. I’m fine running a space because then I know who to be and what to do. Curiously, the social spaces I don’t find stressful are steampunk ones, and that may have given me the key to unlocking this, because at the same time, spaces dominated by straight women terrify me.
I have never known how to perform femininity. I wasn’t taught how to do it as a child, or given any of the usual props – no pretty shoes, no toys targeted at girls etc. My mother and grandmother did not perform femininity either so I didn’t learn it from my environment. All of the gender based aspects of social interaction made no sense to me as a child, but I also didn’t know that was something I was struggling with. I also wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t have any idea how to perform ‘boy’ either.
Many of the unspoken rules for social spaces involve gender performance. Those performances change over time for young humans, especially around how your gender is supposed to interact with the other gender. The child who cannot perform gender appears weird and incomprehensible to the children whose sense of self already has a strong gender identity wired in, and a strong binary sense of what gender means. I didn’t want the things little girls were supposed to want, or the things the little boys were supposed to want. I had missed all the gender stereotyping memos. I had no idea how to interact with anyone else.
Steampunk spaces are remarkably uninformed by gender. People wear what they like, enthuse about whatever they like, there’s not much social performance of gender, no expectation based on apparent gender. You might think with the dresses and corsets that there would be, but mostly, there isn’t. How I present socially actually works in a steampunk space.
I recognise and empathise with things autistic people say about navigating neurotypical spaces and the stress this causes. But I think for me the issue has been the way in which so much social interaction is underpinned by the expectation of, and performance of binary gender identities. I never understood what the rules might be, to be honest I still don’t really get how any of it works. I have no idea whether social interactions based on gender binaries are intrinsic for some people, or just constructs that they get along with – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What I need for my own wellbeing are the spaces where gender performance isn’t a key part of social interaction, and if I’ve got that, I’m good.
At the weekend, we took The Ominous Folk of Hopeless Maine to Stroud Steampunk weekend, with a show called Wrecked on Hopeless. It’s a mix of storytelling, script and song and gives people an introduction to the fictional island of Hopeless, Maine.
It went so well that we’ve had several further bookings as a consequence, which is really exciting. This has led me to thinking about what we might do next year and what I might write for us.
My creative life depends on having people to create for. It’s one of the reasons I love being in steampunk spaces because there’s always so much warmth and enthusiasm. Making things for steampunks is a deeply rewarding process. I invariably come out of steampunk events full of ideas and feelings about things I want to create. At the moment, I’m giving a lot of thought to what I will take to the Winter Convivial in Gloucester in November – more of that over here – https://www.facebook.com/SteamPunkFestGloucester
When I initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land, and for the good of my tribe. At this point I recognise that ‘tribe’ isn’t a good word to use but it’s now part of the history I have. So, while I won’t claim that word moving forward, I need to acknowledge it in relation to that specific pledge.
It remains vitally important to me to think about who my people are, and to think about what good I can do with my creative work.