Although this list is in no particular order, The Ruby in the Smoke feels like a good place to start. I first met Philip Pullman’s gun-toting Victorian girl detective when I was about eleven and I am officially saddling her with the blame for my current enamourment with the world of Victorian London—steampunk and otherwise. Five years later I’m not sure what it was about this book that I loved so much (aside from the gorgeous cover art). Perhaps it was just a well-timed series to help me move on from Nancy Drew and Lady Grace Cavendish (different era, still awesome). Perhaps it was the fact that I’d just read Twilight and was itching for a strong female protagonist (if memory serves, I bought this book on a whim after rejecting buying New Moon because I “can’t read any more Bella”). Maybe it was that it’s well written, atmospheric, exciting and the characters are to die for. Whatever the reason, five years on, I am still a Victorian tragic.
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
Also bought on a whim because of a pretty cover, I was not expecting to love The Picture of Dorian Gray as much as I did. It stuck in my head more than most books and went on to influence not only my fiction writing, but also an essay I had to do on Frankenstein (blame the doppelgänger motif). It is currently my favorite classic novel and spawned its own category in my mind (alongside Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire). Due to its psychological denseness, this book took me multiple weeks to read, but towards the end I was ignoring lunchtime conversation in favour of Wilde’s twisted masterpiece. The only drawback? Ryan Gosling is now my mental stock image of a dandy—I’m never going to look at The Notebook the same way again.
3. The Diabolical Miss Hyde by Viola Carr.
“Here in hell, at least we know how to have a good time.”
Oh. My. God. I am so glad I (read: my mum) discovered this masterpiece. Victorian Gothicism, murder, insane asylums, and supernatural creatures—not to mention the seedy back alleys of a steampunk London—combine to create what could be my ideal novel. The main thing I love about Diabolical Miss Hyde is the way it switches between police-doctor Eliza and her red-satin alter ego Lizzie Hyde, providing a controlled reaction to murder and misogyny alongside one drenched in passion and revenge. The writing is phenomenal and my copy is riddled with grey-lead underlines. Everyone has to read this novel. I’m only annoyed I didn’t write it first.
4. The Parasol Protectorate Series by Gail Carriger.
“Why, oh why, did vampire-style paleness have to rule so thoroughly in the fashion world?”
When forcing this on friends I describe it as humorous-character driven-paranormal-steampunk-crime-romance because I struggle to pin it down as just one genre. While I love just about everything Carriger’s writing, I especially enjoy the characters she invents. Each of them is individual and engaging in their own way and when I finished Parasol Protectorate I was not ready to abandon those characters, which is why I am so glad they make cameos in her other series. Her writing is witty, funny and unabashedly ridiculous. Her novels feature murderous ladybugs and hedgehogs and dirigibles with names such as Dandelion Fluff Upon a Spoon. Not to mention Lord Akeldama’s pet names and Ivy Hisselpenny’s hat collection. The books are light and enjoyable with just enough scientific and supernatural denseness to be intellectually stimulating amidst the absurdist characters and dialogue. Furthermore, the way she casts werewolves and vampires into historical society with vampires as nobility and werewolves as soldiers is remarkably clever. The perfect blend of Steampunk science, supernatural creatures, and Victorian comedy.
5. The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare.
“Dreams can be dangerous things.”
I am a complete sucker for Cassandra Clare’s writing and, while Sally Lockhart may have introduced me to the Victorians, The Infernal Devices is what introduced me to steampunk, earning it a spot on this list. While the love-triangle trope can get a bit tiring, I like the way Clare handles it in The Infernal Devices. Similarly to The Parasol Protectorate, Clare uses vampiric characters to fill the role of Victorian high-society but goes even further to find roles for the supernatural from the lowest slums to the most sought-after ball. This blending of steampunk with supernatural is a genre I thoroughly enjoy and Clare handles it very well.