I know that the idea of steampunk romance is a head-scratcher for some readers of both genres – the two genres seem quite different. Steampunk often possesses a gritty, industrial aesthetic and a story that challenges (or at least comments on) a socio-economic and/or political status quo, whereas romance often tells the story of beautiful people, sex, and normalized happily-ever-afters.
On the surface, it does seem as if an unbridgeable gap exists between the two genres, but I’ve found that two particular aspects of steampunk lend themselves spectacularly to romance. One is the technological component – not necessarily the gadgets (though those are fun), but the effect of changing technology on society. Setting the series in the middle of that cultural shift opens so many avenues of conflict, whether it stems from characters who resist the changes, from alterations in class structure, or from an individual character’s uncertainty about where he fits in this new world (and, of course, the conflict that always arises when a character’s idea of his place clashes with society’s idea of his place).
The second aspect is simply invention, which we see over and over again in steampunk. Technology can be used to oppress and dehumanize – but its creation can also be rebellion, or a triumph of human ingenuity. And a sense of wonder, adventure, and danger so often accompanies invention; it’s that new idea that may very well blow up and kill whoever tries to explore it...but the potential gain or discovery is well worth the risk. So a steampunk setting – a world crammed full of inventions – doesn’t allow for wimpy heroes and heroines. Whether they’re desperate or driven, they have to venture out into this world, and that exploration may very well kill them.
...and I’ve just used a lot of phrases that describe my ideal love story. A steampunk setting provides plenty of external conflict, and the opportunity for the kind of adventure that I love writing and reading. But more importantly, the romantic conflict echoes everything I enjoy about steampunk. That means I write about characters who might resist the emotional and social changes a burgeoning relationship forces upon them. It’s an examination of where they’ll fit in someone else’s life (and it’s always best if they don’t fit easily.
And as for love ... well, we all know that love can be oppressive, and a powerful tool. But falling in love with someone can also be liberating, and require a great deal of bravery – particularly if the characters know that, if something goes wrong, it can blow up and destroy them...but once again, the potential gain is worth the risk.
Steampunk romance isn’t going to be for everyone. There will be both steampunk and romance fans who will read The Iron Duke with a “What in the world is this? I can’t believe some author thought this would work” caption floating above their heads. But in my opinion, the genres fit together beautifully – and I’m only surprised that there aren’t already dozens of steampunk romances in bookstores.
Hopefully, there soon will be.