mortal engines extended trailer

Mortal Engines — a bombastic film produced by Peter Jackson and coming to a theater near you on December 14 — is not only full of roving cities, fantastic airships and a killer cyborg, but is also based on the eponymous book by Philip Reeve.

“Uh oh!” you might be thinking. “Another film based on a book! Do I have to read the book before I see it?”

You’ll likely get contrary answers depending on who you ask; some, for example, might say you should read the book before seeing the movie, while others might urge you to go into the film with fresh eyes. I’m here to offer you another option: instead of reading Mortal Engines, read something else in the steampunk genre. That way, you’ll get into the mood for the movie without spoiling the story itself. Genius, right? I know! But before we get to my recommendations, let’s talk about what’s considered steampunk.

(Ed. note: the filmmakers behind Mortal Engines insist their movie is not steampunk, but the comparisons are too numerous to ignore, especially when it comes to book recommendations.)

Steampunk stories usually (but not always) take place in Victorian or Wild West-inspired settings where the primary power source is steam rather than electricity. This often results in worlds where a lot of clockwork gears are turning, a lot of characters are wearing goggles and/or funny hats, and a lot of automatons and dirigibles (AKA airships) dot the landscape. Despite these common tropes, there is a wide breadth of steampunk books out there, including mashups with other genres such as romance, fantasy, historical fiction and space opera.

With that in mind, here are five books that not only do steampunk well, but also have great mashups with other genres. Any of these will put you in a proper steampunk frame of mind before heading to the theater to see Mortal Engines.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel: Steampunk + Pirates and “Flying Cats”

Airborn is arguably the most similar book to Mortal Engines on this list. In this story, Matt Cruse, a cabin boy on the airship Aurora, ends up on an adventure to find out whether the strange flying creatures a dying man had once described to him are real. This quest to find these “flying cats,” as he and his companion Kate call them, take the two to a hidden island where they run into pirates. It’s a swashbuckling tale, and also the first of a trilogy if one steampunk pirate adventure story isn’t enough for you.

Arabella of Mars by David Levine: Steampunk + Mars and Napoleon

Want some aliens and human-inhabited colonies on Mars with your steampunk? If so, Arabella of Mars is perfect for you! This story takes place in the early 1800s (AKA Victorian times), except in this alternative history, humankind has figured out how to travel to Mars via airships (just go with it). This tale focuses on a young woman named Arabella, who is born on Mars but is forced by her mother to go to London to become a proper English lady. Arabella doesn’t do well in London—she misses her alien nanny, her father and brother, and the freedom to fiddle with various automata. Unfortunate events, however, cause her to head back to Mars disguised as a boy on an airship, where, among other things, she becomes entangled in Britain’s extended war with France. This is also the first book of at least a trilogy (the third book came out this July), and based on the title of the second book—Arabella and the Battle of Venus—it looks like Arabella’s adventures continue further out into the Solar System.

Flotsam by R.J. Theodore: Steampunk + Deep Space + Some Gods

Want steampunk in a galaxy far, far away? How about some gods thrown in for fun? Flotsam has all these things, and it’s bananas (But good bananas! Fresh, ripe, yummy bananas!). The story follows Captain Talis, a scavenger who goes through the detritus of the broken planet of Peridot (read: floating islands) and finds an old, dented ring that a bunch of people want. Things happen quickly from there, and the book is a fast-paced page-turner that will leave you impatiently waiting for the second book of the series, which is set to come out next year.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: Steampunk + The Wild West…With Zombies

Boneshaker is another alternative history, though this one takes place in the Wild West of Seattle, where a woman named Briar must brave The Blight—a gas that has saturated downtown Seattle and turned people into the walking undead—to save her son. The story has some airships and lots of goggles and automata (Briar, along with most people in town, work in a mine), and a few twists and turns that will likely surprise you at the end. This Hugo and Nebula award nominee is the first of a five-book series, giving readers lots to read if steampunk and zombies are their cup of tea.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock: Steampunk + High Fantasy

Into magical worlds that also have airships and clockwork creatures? Give An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors a try! The story follows a young, science-loving Isabelle and her father-like protector, the musketeer Jean-Claude. Isabelle and Jean-Claude’s world is full of blood magic, floating continents and airships, and the story follows the two as they try to prevent Isabelle from being murdered by a sorcerer-assassin. I’d recommend this book to those who love George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series but might not think they like steampunk. And unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, there will be another book coming out in January, so you won’t have to wait years to continue on in the series. 

So wherever your genre interests roam, give steampunk books a try! And if you don’t get to these stories before seeing Mortal Engines, you can still read them later (you can read them anytime, really, even if you don’t see the Mortal Engines movie). Just snuggle up with your favorite automaton this holiday season, and get lost in these strange, steam-powered worlds. At the very least, you’ll know what a dirigible is afterward.

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