I’ve lived in Melbourne for nearly 30 years, so naturally my interest was piqued when I came across steampunk series, The Antics of Evangeline by fellow Melburnian Madeleine D’Este. The series is available in one volume, which I picked from Apple Books about two months ago.
I decided to review the first book, in which our eponymous heroine is on the hunt for an alchemist doing the dodgy with people’s gold, in the years following the Victorian Gold Rush.
From the outset, the story is fun, well-paced and well-written. As a novella, it’s a perfect length at around 25K words and I didn't feel it lacked for substance. Evangeline is a delightful character, who following a difficult past in London as a street urchin has found a new life with her long-lost father in colonial Melbourne.
I can’t decide if the book is aimed at younger readers, because while the tone is light—almost frivolous— there’s a measure of subtext I picked up on that hinted at more adult themes and complex characters. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a cozy read, and angst and tension are minimal. Not for a minute are you left wondering that Evangeline will triumph, or at least escape her perils. It's Melbourne and it's steampunk — as imagined while sitting down for rich lunch in The Pancake Parlour.
So, in the absence of nail-biting tension, you might be asking what made me keep turning the pages...the answer is the setting.
D’Este has done a terrific job in blending 19thC Melbourne with the elements of the steampunk genre. Anyone who’s lived in Marvellous Melbourne will feel right at home, in the lovely descriptions of the city, fashions, cultures of the day, and the fantastic steampunk contraptions.
D’Este’s coziness extends to her setting, which she’s given a lick of paint out of respect for modern sensibilities. The city is diverse — Evangeline’s best mate is a Chinese girl who’s teaching her Kung Fu — but there’s none of the undercurrent of racism fermenting in the years before Federation that later gave rise to the White Australia Policy. Her uncle, I suspect, is gay but there’s no overt homophobia. Granted all this is explored through the perspective of a 17yo girl, who’s at once worldly from her time on the London streets, yet at times feels naive in the mould of gentrified lady.
I enjoyed the story a great deal, my criticisms are minor, and I can appreciate D'Este's skill as an author. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Evangeline's certainly a delightful character, one I think modern young women will relate to, and D'Este's furnished her with a wonderful world to explore. I'm really keen to see how she developers as stories process.
Interview with Madeleine D'Este
CR: Firstly, tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?. What do you write and what got you started on your writing journey in the first place?
I dabbled in writing here and there for years (writing courses and Nanowrimo) and I’ve always loved to read. I just didn’t have the confidence or the perseverance to make it happen or finish anything. Then when doing some serious soul searching, I admitted that writing a novel was my no.1 bucket list goal. So it was crunch time. Do it or regret it forever?
CR: I know like me, you work at the coalface of Corporate Australia, where and how do you find the time to write and podcast?
I am actually very boring and anti-social. I write before or after work and always make it the number one priority of my day. The Twitter Monthly Writing Challenge group gives me great accountability as well as a lovely bunch of writers to play with. Non-writers don’t quite understand how much work is needed to produce a book and so I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to stuff.
CR: So, tell us about Steampunk Melbourne! I think you've captured an unusual niche there. What attracts you to Steampunk, and why Marvellous Melbourne of all places?
I heard a factoid that in the late 1800s Melbourne was the largest city in the Empire outside London (not sure if this is actually true) and this sparked the ideas. Melbourne was flush with gold rush cash in the 1880s and many of the sandstone buildings still exist today. I love a bit of Victoriana and always adored Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, then Gail Carriger and AC Doyle of course plus an obsession with the Dr Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang. This all meshed together with a desire to write a local story. I read a million books set in London or the US but what about Melbourne?
CR: One of the things that drew me to Evangeline as a lead character is that she's, well a female. There was a chronic shortage of female-led fantasy books when I was a kid. How do you see the genre today concerning gender diversity?
I’m no fantasy expert but these days there are so many awesome women writing fantasy. We’re sick of reading about the chosen boy and putting up with books with no women in them. And what’s even more exciting are the stories from every culture and gender persuasion. There are so many stories to be told - why constrain ourselves to the stories of white men?
CR: I mentioned before you're a keen podcaster, and that's how I first discovered your work. At the time of writing, you've produced an incredible 55 episodes. Can you tell us a little about why you started Write Through the Roof? What episode are you most proud of?
Back to the gender diversity thing, I love a podcast but I was sick of listening to interviews with white American men. So I decided to step up and do it myself. As a kid, when I wasn’t reading or obsessing over A-ha, I also played radio stations, taping myself announcing my favourite songs. Basically the podcast is an excuse for me to grill cool people and ask them questions and pretend I’m being altruistic. Every episode inspires me because my guests are so knowledgeable and every guest has given me something to work on. Sorry to be so wishy-washy but I love youse all!
CR: What are you working on now? Have you got something nearing release that you'd like to tell us about? Finally, where's the best place people can go to find out more about you and your books?
I have two novels in the pipeline for release in 2019 (fingers crossed). First up is a grim feminist historical fantasy - Women of Wasps and War and then a YA supernatural set during a high school production of Macbeth - The Flower and The Serpent.
In the meantime you can hear me on Write Through The Roof podcast or my Dark Mysteries book review show on www.artdistrict-radio.com