Heroines Who Challenge The Status Quo
Steampunk romance heroines are often progressive in terms of gender roles. In fact, I’ve met few heroines in this subgenre who weren’t progressive in some way. Steampunk romance’s alternate world setting provides authors with a lot of freedom to place heroines in new roles and situations. In turn, such stories can provide intriguing social commentary.
One such steampunk romance is Beth Ciotta’s His Clockwork Canary (Glorious Victorious Darcys #2):
For ambitious engineer Simon Darcy, winning Queen Victoria’s competition to recover lost inventions of historical significance is a matter of pride—and redemption. After all, it was Simon’s failed monorail project that left his family destitute, and winning the tournament would surely restore the Darcys’ reputation. Simon sets his sights high, targeting no less than the infamous time-travel device that forever changed the world by transporting scientists, engineers, and artists from the twentieth century. The Mod technology was banned and supposedly destroyed, but Simon is sure he can re-create it. His daring plan draws the attention of Willie G., the Clockwork Canary, London’s sensationalist reporter. Simon soon discovers that Willie is a male guise for Wilhemina Goodenough, the love of his youth, who left him jilted and bitter. He questions her motives even as he falls prey to her unique charm. As the attraction between the two reignites, Simon realizes that this vixen from his past has secrets that could be the key to his future…as long as he can put their history behind him.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
His Clockwork Canary is a tale of reunited lovers, lost time machines, secrets, nefarious villains, and mysteries, but I couldn’t help but notice how much of the story focuses on Wilhelmina’s battle against the patriarchy–or rather, her attempts to circumvent it in order to support her family.
As the story begins, we learn the heroine has been disguised for many years as tabloid reporter Willie G., otherwise known as the “Clockwork Canary.” Wilhelmina’s efforts to pass as a man are extensive. She binds her breasts, wears baggy male clothes, artificially darkens her skin, and alters her body language and vocabulary. And, because she’s a mutated human with supernatural abilities, a “Freak,” she wears contacts to conceal her rainbow-hued eyes.
There are quite a few layers to her character–more than one might expect in a breezy, action-adventure steampunk romance. While she’s suffered in various ways and teeters on the edge of a precarious life, her obvious skills and the pride she feels in her accomplishments prevents her character from veering into martyrdom territory. One gets the sense that Wilhelmina enjoys her new existence.
Once Wilhelmina and Simon begin to rekindle their romance, she has to persuade him she’s entitled to the freedoms she’s earned, which include earning her own money, independence, a career, and the ability to defend herself. She’s not unwilling to accept Simon’s help, but on mutually agreed upon terms rather than his alone. This issue serves as the crux of the conflict between them.
Being a “Vic” (i.e., a person from the past rather than a time traveling “Mod”), Simon struggles with the new Wilhelmina. The daughter of a Vic and Mod union, she’s a woman caught between worlds. Simon wants her safe so badly that at one point he considers curtailing her basic human rights in order to do so. Given Wilhelmina’s capabilities and accomplishments, Simon’s attitude is hardly endearing. On the surface, he comes across as controlling and thus irritating. But it makes for interesting subtext as Simon both represents and embodies the patriarchy that Wilhelmina’s been trying to survive and perhaps even escape.
I won’t reveal what happens, but a large portion of His Clockwork Canary involves Wilhelmina and Simon negotiating their gender roles, among other things. To find out whether they’re able to reach a truly progressive compromise, you’ll have to read the book!
In the meantime, here’s an assortment of other steampunk romance heroines who share similar traits and journeys with Wilhelmina:
The heroine: Louisa Shaw from Zoe Archer’s Skies of Fire
The least you need to know: She’s a fearless British Naval Intelligence Agent who keeps a level head in the face of danger.
The heroine: Dr. Geneva McKay from Cindy Spencer Pape’s Kilts and Kraken
The least you need to know: At a time when female medical professionals are much frowned upon, she doesn’t let anyone stop her from being the best physician she can be.
The heroine: Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth from Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke
The least you need to know: She’s an Asian female working in a man’s world but doesn’t let that discourage her. Plus, she’s not afraid of Rhys Trahaern, a.k.a. the Iron Duke.
The heroine: Miss Olivia Carstairs from Pauline Baird Jones’ Tangled in Time
The least you need to know: Olivia may be a prim and proper scientist’s assistant, but she’s got a flair for adventure. She also keeps an open mind, a handy trait when one’s time machine veers wildly off course.
The heroine: Violet from Nathalie Gray’s Mechanical Rose
The least you need to know: She’s a spy on a mission with cool gadgets, cool moves, and is unapologetically sexual.
About the author
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the genre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.