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.
I have three new stories out in the world at the moment…
I have a tiny flash fiction piece in the album notes of Maximum Splendid, the new Rapscallion album. I’m very taken with the music, and it’s always lovely to be part of a steampunk thing! Hard copies here – https://rapscallionband.com/store#!
Over on Patreon, I’ve started serialising a new book. That’s available to anyone who signs up as a Dustcat, Steampunk Druid or Glass Heron. It’s a speculative novel, plenty of magical Pagan elements, plenty of weirdness… Spells for the Second Sister isn’t available anywhere else at present. You can find that over here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB
That morning he found a large, yellowish ball of spider eggs inside the collar of his jacket. It was not an omen. Durosimi did not believe in omens.
Any occultist worth their salt knows that divination, prophecy and other variations on a theme of anticipating the future, are tricksy things. Durosimi considered it an inexact science at best. He preferred exact science and dependable outcomes. Alchemy, necromancy, demonology; why try to see the future when you could create it through deliberate action? Most of what passed for divination was nonsense anyway.
The ball of spider eggs did not mean anything. The large, dead spider that somehow got into his breakfast did not mean anything. Only that the latest cook was as incompetent as the previous one.
I think there’s a fighting chance this would stand alone without reading book 1 first, but really, why would you do that to yourself? Read book 1 first and then read this one! There’s always that worry with a series that the author won’t be able to live up to the promise of the opening, or that it will all spiral out of control – well, that’s not an issue here.
I loved book 1, and book 2 follows on from it wonderfully. Mat expands and develops the story and the setting with great style and skill. Life on Mars is explored in greater detail and the plots we encountered in book 1 become even plottier. As some mysteries seem to become clearer, new questions and problems arise for the characters. What’s critically important in this is that it feels entirely controlled. There’s clearly an underlying story here, and as the world building expands, more sense can be made of what’s going on, not less.
This is a wonderfully diverse tale, with characters from all kinds of backgrounds. It sets that diversity in a context that is sometimes supportive, sometimes problematic for the characters. There’s some of that Victorian prudery, and an exploration of prejudice around it, but also a strong pushback against narrow and restrictive ways of being. There’s a look at the realities of colonialism that does not romanticise invasion, conquest or settlement. While the central characters are largely privileged people, the story itself exposes that privilege and its implications in all sorts of ways.
This is a complicated adventure with a lot of action and a great deal going on – murder and revenge, spies and political scheming, evil science, strange sf elements, mystery, wonder, smugglers, airships, afternoon tea… it’s a really strong mix that managed to be both grounded and surprising.
I particularly like Mat’s approach to storytelling – the tale is presented as a series of documents gathered after the event – diaries, text books, letters and so forth. Sometimes the story is fragmented. Sometimes it overlaps, but in the overlapping versions, doubts and possibilities appear. The first person voices of the characters are distinctive, and the choice of who not to give a voice to also affects the plot in significant ways. I think it’s technically a really clever piece of work, which I also enjoyed. I may think about the mechanics of this sort of thing more than is normal!
It’s not easy reviewing a book in a series because almost any comment on the details has the potential to spoiler the previous instalments. This is especially true of this series, where even talking too much about the identities of the characters in book 2 might give away too much about who has survived book 1 and what has changed for them.
Get your favourite poison out, we’s gonna have a toast at the end.
A few years ago (in ye olde merry pre-Covid days), Cair and I received an invitation from Tom and Nimue Brown to participate in the book market they were hosting at the famous Lincoln Asylum Steampunk festival. They’d read some of my stuff and liked it. As traders we were starters. The handful of previous events we had attended had all been small local affairs. We had no idea what to expect from the Asylum. Cair and I rolled into Lincoln as green as Spring’s first shoots. To say the event was an eye-opener is an understatement to be sure.
As to Asylum itself, the sheer scale of the event, not to mention the fantastic setting, was overwhelming and breathtaking. The impressions we took back home after our four-day immersion into a magical wonderland are too many to fit into the scope of a brief blog. Suffice to say, I’d definitely recommend the experience.
What we also took home was a great deal of respect for the Browns. We were already in awe of their writing and illustrating skills. Unapologetic fans of their Hopeless, Maine graphic novels before we met them in real life, we discovered that the human beings behind the art are even more impressive.
Upon arrival (in a chaotic panic as the sheer scale of the event was rapidly becoming clear to us – Steampunks everywhere in Lincoln!), we were heartily welcomed and received warm introductions to the other participants in the Assembly Rooms. Over the course of the next few days it became clear that this wasn’t a random collection of traders and exhibitors – but a proper community.
Folk willingly helped each other out, minding stalls, offering encouragement, sharing treats, and showing interest in what others were up to. The volume of the exchange of ideas, visions, and dreams conjured up a perceptible creative buzz in the air. I’m socially awkward, far more eloquent on paper than in situations which involve actually talking to people, but will emerge from my shell to recharge creative batteries in the company of folk who dare to dream.
The year after, we were invited to the Steampunk festival in Stroud, Gloucester. We greeted familiar faces from Lincoln, but also met other members of the community the Browns have built around their vision of Hopeless, Maine. Once again hearty introductions were made. That included Professor Elemental, who, half-a-year later at the annual Hastings extravaganza, remembered me instantly even though we had only spoken briefly at Stroud.
During his gig in Stroud, the Prof crowned Cair as Queen of Stroud and she fulfilled her duties most regally, it must be said, looking the part in her lacy black ball gown. There was a certain reluctance to hand back the crown at the end of the night. To this day, if I try to remind Her Majesty that the Prof said it was just for the night, she’ll stick her fingers in her ears and sing “La-la-la, not listening you simple peasant.”
Although there were many highlights for the Browns during that truly fantastic event, I suspect a main one imprinted on their memories was the improvisation made to Professor Elemental’s Chap-Hop hit Cup of Brown Joy.
Mayhap I project, as I for one can still vividly hear the crowd in the Subscription Rooms roaring back at the Prof’s request. “I say Hopeless, you say…” “MAINE!” Stuck in the memory is also an image of Tom and Nimue, surrounded by the warmth of family and friends on their home turf, roaring along – dancing together somewhere far over the moon.
With all of that in mind, I’m absolutely delighted that the webpage The Hopeless Vendetta, digital epicentre of the Hopeless crowd, is to feature a novelette-length tale I wrote set in Tom and Nimue’s Hopeless, Maine. The story is called Diswelcome. It possibly has some familiar faces. Warning: May contain tentacles.
Writing it was an opportunity to express my gratitude for Tom and Nimue’s incredible hospitality in Lincoln and Stroud.
The story interweaves two worlds in a manner that respects both the fickle and capricious habitat offered by Hopeless (Maine) and my own Smugglepunk verse in Sussex. Tom has done a fantastic illustration of what might have become of the main character (based on my humble self), provided Ned managed to avoid getting eaten by the local flora and fauna. That illustration is to appear in a future Hopeless, Maine graphic novel, which is a marvellous and tantalizing link to Diswelcome.
The story and experience taught me that it was possible to link different creative worlds and art forms together, vital skills for Smugglepunk, as it turned out.
‘Smugglepunk’ started as a joke, in an amusing online convo on a Steampunk fb page regarding the voracious growth of sub-SP genres. I was almost tempted to indulge in a suggested Viking-Punk themed story, when it occurred to me that I was always explaining my story genre as being Steampunk with a bit of a difference, so I might as well invent a specific sub-genre for it as a laugh. Hence Smugglepunk, which was immediately confused for Snugglepunk, which I thought hilarious and brilliant. Snuggling sells, they say and I’ll stoop to any low to sell a handful of books.
When I first met Tom and Nimue there wasn’t much to this brave new world as of yet. Just a Steampunk novel, dropping hints as to a smuggling background history for the main character, and two short stories that had appeared in Writerpunk Press Anthologies, a recognition of which I was and continue to be mightily proud.
Smugglepunk is set in an alternative version of Sussex, in which old South East coastal smuggling lore is fused with Steampunk technology and culture.
Tom and Nimue encouraged me to pursue the ‘genre’ and explore every nook-and-cranny of this ‘Visserverse’, as someone has kindly named it. Short stories for Anthologies and two novelettes followed, and I’m currently scribbling away at a novel, the first part of which has been shared online on my website for free as Lockdown treat. As that part of the world kept growing, I contemplated other means of establishing Smugglepunk as a semi-serious genre. Before long I asked myself: What would the Browns do?
The answer was simple, they would certainly not circle the wagons whilst keening “my precious”, but share the magic of creation and invite others to partake in the sheer joy of it. So I set out, in my own clumsy way, to emulate their example.
From a one-man-show, Smugglepunk has grown thanks to the input of a great many splendid people, some from the Brown’s tribe, others new faces, or friends of old. Photographers, radio-phonic broadcasters, fellow authors, illustrators, songwriters, musicians, editors of various Anthologies, reviewers, mad inventors, Steampunk Bikers, Hastings and Eastbourne Pyrates, West Sussex Steampunks, museums, and old smuggling inns have all hopped on board.
Highlights were: a pre-Lockdown photo shoot by Corin Spinks in the old smuggler’s town of Rye; hearing Felix Clement sing a song based on a poem of mine; receiving splendid contributions for SCADDLES (the first Smugglepunk anthology); hearing Daren Callow of Tales of New Albion read chapter after chapter of Fair Night for Foul Folk (the Lockdown freebie novel) on the British Steampunk Broadcasting Co-operation; Julie Gorringe’s dunnamany Smugglepunk illustrations; and working with Professor Elemental on a new song of his called Elemental Smugglepunk.
It’s worked like a charm I reckon, a bit of the Hopeless magic in Sussex. Tom and Nimue were there every step of the way, commending the mostly impulsive mad-cap ideas I shared with them. None of these new connections or old connections rekindled would have happened without their example and mentorship.
Of course, this year has seen most of this collaboration take place online, at an awkward distance that gives a sense of connection but is still a poor imitation of real human interaction.
I’m positively certain I’m not the only one who misses those splendid moments of real and genuine contact at Convivials and Festivals. I can’t wait for the moment that I can thank the Browns in person, for believing in me when few did and all the wonderful things that have flourished since. It’s my understanding I’m not the only one whose life has been touched by these two wonderful people, always willing to give and modestly reluctant to take. I’d like to impress upon them how they have enriched the life of others around them in an exemplary manner, and how much Human meaning this has in a world that seems at times to be on a downward trajectory with regard to patience, tolerance, understanding, and empathy.
Hopefully these current dark nights reflect the rock-bottom of this crisis. Vaccination programmes take time to implement. It’s still unclear when we can all meet up again, but there’s a new hope born from the knowledge that we will all meet up again, this thing isn’t going to last forever. Until then…
…raise your glass please, and join me in a toast to absent friends.