Book Review: Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables edited by Stephen L. Antczak and James C. Bassett

Reviewing a short story collection can be challenging, perhaps even more so when each piece is by a different author. Even with a single author, such collections are usually uneven.  Rather than compare the nine stories and authors, (or pass a blanket judgment on the entire collection) I’ll provide a brief explanation of the adaptation, my thoughts on how successfully done, rate them individually and perhaps even pass a little judgment on the level of steampunkishness.  Just sprinkling a few steampunk gadgets into a story is not enough.  The reader should feel that they are in a steampunk world.

La Valse by K.W. Jeter, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes”

Anton is an apprentice to Herr Doktor Pavel. Each year they ensure the proper functioning of the metal framework that encloses and does the dancing for the dissipated aristocrats attending the New Years Eve ball. But this year there are tragic results.

As brutal and ugly as the original story is, this retelling tops it. Rather than one individual and a pair of shoes, a whole group of people are danced to death by steam-powered contraptions. Here, the girl of the story is Gisel, Anton’s love interest and maid to one of the most arrogant aristocrats. A bit rushed but well written. This tale would have become even more interesting if we were taken further into the aftermath.

3.5/5 stars with potential

Fair Vasyl by Steven Harper, based on the Russian “Vasilisa the Beautiful”

Vasyl is a tinker in Kiev who must complete an impossible task to win the hand of the beautiful daughter of the Mayor. Failure means death. Along with his best friend, Petro the smith, he seeks out Baba Yaga and strikes a deal with the witch.

While not a poor adaptation, this was one of the least successful for me.   The language of dialogue did not ring true, and was not suited to the story. It was also telegraphed pretty early on that neither Vasyl nor Petro want him to marry a woman. I also felt it was slightly less successful than others in creating a steampunk world.

2.5/5 stars

The Hollow Hounds by Kat Richardson, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Tinderbox”

Set in Civil War era America, a 26 year old soldier who was wounded and sent home has decided to travel on after finding his family is dead. In his travels, as he nears the town of Stone Crossing, he encounters a rotund gentleman, Conscience Morton, who asks for help. The soldier agrees to retrieve a music box from a madman’s lair, complete with clockwork beasts. Following the basic storyline of “The Tinderbox,” the soldier goes on to the town of Stone Crossing, meets a widow and confronts the madman.

This was the first story that I truly enjoyed reading. I liked the characters of the soldier and the widow, and the clockwork beasts. This had more of a gritty western steampunk feel and better representation of steampunk technology.

4.5/5 stars with some adult content

The Kings of Mount Golden by Paul Di Filippo, based on the Brother’s Grimm “The King of Golden Mountain”

Another story set during and after the American Civil War era, Warner Gilead’s wife ran off with the inventor Hedley King only to die in childbirth. Hedley trades his child to Warner for the patent on his invention, the Morphic Resonator. The child, Brannock, is raised by Warner, unaware that he is Hedley’s son until his thirteenth birthday. At eighteen, he travels to Vermont and seeks out his biological father at his estate, Mount Golden. But Hedley has come a bit unhinged and uses Bran in a diabolical plot, using the Morphic Resonator and involving General Ulysses S. Grant.

I’m not familiar with the Brother’s Grimm tale and so can’t directly comment on the adaptation. While the invention is steampunk-ish, the story does not have an overall steampunk feel. I have no issue with the writing, but found some of the characters and the story itself unappealing.

2-2.5/5 stars

You Will Attend Until Beauty Awakens by Jay Lake, based on Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty”

King Grimm and Queen Perrault of Talos forget to name the 13th child of the Queen of Summer and the Winter King on the invitation to their daughter Zellandyne’s christening.   Unfortunately, that is the one child who is a bad fairy…

As this is such a familiar tale, I’ll focus a bit more on commentary. It was an interesting take on the Sleeping Beauty story, with multiple points of view, narrative interludes, and clever twists to the prince character and true love’s kiss. Zellandyne herself is a bit different from the traditional princess, physically strong and not afraid to go at the curse head-on. While still incorporating the fae elements of the original story, there are mechanical guards, laboratories, a metallic priest, and scientific remedies to the infertility of the royal couple. While I would not count it as a one of the best, mostly as I did not enjoy the first part of the tale, it is a solid adaptation with an interesting take on the hero, the heroine, and her conception.

3.5/5 stars

Mose and the Automatic Fireman by Nancy A. Collins, based on tall tales of American Folk Hero Mose the Fireboy

From scrawny orphan to leader of the Bowery Boys fire brigade and competition with an automaton fireboy.

Perhaps I am from the wrong region to have ever heard of Mose the Fireboy. So I do not know if the transformation by meteor is new or directly taken from the tall tales. I cannot comment on the storyline or how it relates to the original. So, I’ll just say that the automaton fireboy is the only steampunk element I can recall and that this particular tale did not appeal to me as a reader. An issue I had with the story is that the pre-teen Mose, after his transformation, is not represented as maturing in years and yet begins to smoke cigars and consort with loose women. While I would give other examples of the writer’s work a try, I am not compelled to seek any out.

The Clockwork Suit by G.K. Hayes, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

Donny is a small and scrappy boy, taken by his father to work for Professor Widgerty. The Professor, “retired” from the University, has need of a small boy for a special project and is obsessed with secrecy. The secret project? A clockwork suit of armor for the emperor.

One of the better retellings, with the charlatans running a steampunk workshop with a workforce of poor young boys, rather than posing as tailors. Donny, who takes the place of the boy who traditionally sees the Emperor has no clothes, is a likable main character who struggles to contain his anger when provoked by the resident bully. Another young worker, Russell, is a nice contrast to the bully, befriending Donny. A solid story, well adapted to the steampunk genre, and quite enjoyable with a satisfying ending.

The Steampiper, the Stovepiper, and the Pied Piper of New Hamelin, Texas by Gregory Nicoll, based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

Stovepipe Montpellier is a Civil War veteran, tracking a renegade Comanche, who discovers a large rat problem when staying at the local hotel in the Germanic town of New Hamelin, Texas. Into town comes a steampipe organ, mounted on a wagon with rollers, and driven by the Pied Piper. When the townspeople can’t pay his price…

Airships, fancy steampunked weapons, gritty western setting and Comanche warriors! Again, this was one of the stories that I most enjoyed. It was also one of the better retellings, though a bit more risqué than the rest.

4/5 stars, adult content

The Mechanical Wings by Pip Ballantine, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans”

Eleanor and her 11 brothers are, of course, displaced from their home by the wicked new wife of their father, the King of the City of Swans. Sent down to the surface from their floating city, Eleanor is put to work for the witch Miss Stella.   When she sees her brothers, they are trapped inside mechanical swans. To save them from losing their humanity, she must (silently, of course) make silver cloaks that will free them. But silver is only found in the City of Eagles, the sworn enemy of the City of Swans.

I went into this story with higher expectations than the rest. Though I have not read any of Pip Ballantine’s steampunk writing, a series that she co-authors has been on my TBR for quite a while. Also, it was in danger of being compared unfavorably to Juliet Marillier’s retelling of this same story, which was quite the immersive experience when I read it quite a few years ago. Luckily, it was among the best of this collection. Very steampunk and very true to the original story, while being quite original at the same time. Well chosen as the final entry in the collection.

4.5/5 stars

Title: Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables

Edited by:  Stephen L. Antczak, James C. Bassett, various authors

Publisher: Roc, The Penguin Group, New York NY, 2013, 336 pages

Copy Source: purchased from


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