Monday, 13 February 2012

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz

Originally posted here.


I stumbled upon this book quite by accident after following a link that took me to the author’s website. When I saw she had written a steampunk novella set in Australia, how could I possibly resist buying it? I didn’t really need the added incentive of being able to count it towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And before you argue, steampunk counts as science fiction because of the technological and scientific sentiment inherent in (the characters) inventing new old tech.


Wanted: One ScoundrelWanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz is set in and around the Swan River colony — mostly in Perth and Fremantle. The protagonist, Esme, is the daughter of a gold prospector and inventor who struck it rich relatively recently. She is also a suffragette spearheading a political party with the goal of giving women and non-Anglos rights and votes.

The story opens with her realisation that, since her main political opponent has somehow arranged for all political debates to take place at gentlemen’s clubs, she needs a male spokesperson to be a figurehead leader. Unfortunately, all her present male supporters are too busy with their own affairs to devote sufficient time to actually leading a political party. So, with the aid of her captain uncle, she set about finding herself a newly arrived scoundrel (“fresh off the boat” — would that there weren’t other connotations to that phrase) whom she intends to pay to be her puppet.

Enter Jed. A conveniently unknown American recently arrived from England with her uncle’s (steam-powered) ship. Jed quickly agrees to be the front-runner for her political party and a friendship/attraction blossoms between them (well, it is also a romance story).

Esme’s main rival is an old-money easterner (insofar as there is any aristocracy in pre-federation Australia, he seems to be a prime example). Unlikeable to the bone, he doesn’t seem to realise that Esme finds his desire to prevent anyone that isn’t male, white or rich (or, really, anyone that isn’t him or his friends) from voting abhorrent. He started off merely an arrogant prat, but this escalated for the climax in an exciting way, I thought. (No spoilers.)

The steampunk elements are scattered throughout the story. For example there are the steam powered boats that make it to Swan River from England in a matter of weeks, not months, miscellaneous minor steam-powered contraptions and even forays into electricity and magnetism (Tesla gets a very brief mention, too). From a scientific point of view, I found no obvious faults, although I’m a little sceptical of the kangaroo-inspired land vehicle mentioned at one point.

As I implied at the start, the thought of a steampunk story set in Australia made me very keen to read this and I was not disappointed. I hereby encourage more Australian authors to write Australian steampunk. Steam + gold rush allows for a wealth of material to draw from.

Speaking of the gold rush, being an easterner myself, I only really know a bit about Victoria’s gold rush, and next to nothing about Western Australia’s (arguably, I know more about Western Australia’s current mining boom than any of the past). It was nice to read about a slightly different gold rush. I liked that Schwartz put in a significant Indian population in Perth (cf Chinese miners in Victoria).

The writing was ever so slightly clunky in places, mostly when there was an instance of head-hopping (between Esme and Jed) within the same scene. I also found the story got more amusing as it went along — after a slightly uneventful beginning — and I really enjoyed the climax and ending. It had me laughing out loud a few times in the second half. I loved Esme, who was strong, progressive (obviously) and kept her head in trying circumstances. Overall, I recommend this to anyone with a passing interest in steampunk or Australian history.

4 / 5 stars.

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