This is a wonderful idea and so well executed: an alternate history modern world finding a ‘lost’ set of illustrations from the ‘era of steampunk,’ showing military uniforms of various countries. All have historical grounding but then spiced with a bit of different types of steampunk suitable to the cultures. This book was great fun to read and I appreciated that there was a story in addition to all the steampunk military goodness. This ticked off all the boxes for steampunk and historical/military aficionados.
Story: It’s been nearly 100 years since the meteor shower of 1862 gave the world hephaestium. The element burned longer, hotter, and brighter and gave rise to new inventions/brought the world firmly into the steampunk age. Some countries prospered from the meteors’ gifts, others fell into ruin. But the greatest application was the military. And although we live in the age of computers, supersonic train travel, and cybernetic prosthetics now, we remember the steampunk age fondly. Fortunately for us, the lost illustrations of Miles Vandercroft, art student, are found by a descendant. Vandercroft illustrated the soldiers he encountered while on a grand tour – but those illustrations were forgotten after his untimely death in 1909. Now they are now printed in their full glory for us to marvel at our military steampunk past!
Since this is a ‘faux’ portfolio publishing, the lion share of the book is the full page ‘plates’ of illustrations of various soldiers. Each could be right out of a military uniform book – with the exception that they have been cleverly but sparingly outfitted in very steampunk ways. Each plate features a full page write up of the type of soldier as well as his history (each history has been uniquely changed in this alternate universe). Reading the histories is as entertaining as drooling over the beautiful color illustrations.
The ‘plates’ are ordered by countries, with some countries having very interesting ‘histories’ (e.g., the Confederate Army brokered a stalemate peace with the Union upon the election of McClellan as President of the US in 1869). The focus is definitely England and Europe but Asia and other countries are represented as well.
The authors really had fun with the histories. E.g., Germany and Japan went metallic men way but Russia used the hephaestium biologically to make their soldiers super powered (at the expense of longevity, of course). There were fun ‘lessons learned’ in the 100 years since the meteors hit and the world dealt with the hephaestium. It’s worth going back to a history book to see the tweaks the authors made in history to create their alternate universe.
The true star here are the layout and illustration work. This is very beautifully presented. Authenticity to actual military uniform books is adhered to religiously (almost amusingly) and yet there are treats throughout. This isn’t a romantic view of steampunk with ladies in bustle dresses – it’s all soldiers with pseudo futuristic weapons, armor, accessories, or other equipment. E.g., the Finnish soldier uniform is the exact white worn in the Winter War but with a hephaestium powered ski machine attached. Very fun!
If I had a quibble, it’s that the authors killed off Miles in 1909 – but so many of the fashions were WW1 era. E.g., there are nurses and female soldiers in 1918 type fashions rather than the modified semi bustles of the turn of the century or longer dresses of the 1900s. It’s a minor quibble I know but for a book adhering to history so beautifully, it mattered to me.
In all, this is a great book for historical or steampunk fans. It’s an alternate universe presented in a stunning graphical format that really works. Huge kudos to the authors and illustrators! This is definitely one for the coffee table that bears many repeated viewings/readings.
Reviewed from an ARC.