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Bewitched, Bothered and Betrothed: An Intro to Gaslamp Fantasy


"Gaslamp Fantasy" is essentially a sub-genre of Steampunk Fantasy. But, whereas Steampunk often involves gadgets and mad scientists in an alternate Victorian universe, Gaslamp stories are set in a magical version of the 19th century, think Jane Austen or Charles Dickens meets Harry Potter. The stories can take place at any time between the Regency Era (early 1800s) all the way up to the beginning of WWI (1914). You'll find historical settings, gothic ambience, ballrooms, wit and romance, witches, dark magic, fairies and all manner of supernatural creatures but very little science.

The genre itself grew out of the Victorian era's (1837-1901) own fascination with magic, fantasy, fairies and fairy tales that romanticized the supernatural and the innocence of childhood. Such ideas inspired the classics Peter Pan, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Princess and the Goblin (among others). Another influence on the genre was the era's obsession with Spiritualism. People at all levels of society would consult with (mostly fake) psychics and mediums and gather for séances all in the hopes of communing with the dead. Some great YA novels with Spiritualism plots include the wonderfully romantic Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey (2012) and the gothic mystery The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell (2011).

A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey (2014).

Set in 1814, it is the first in the fantastic new Lovegrove Legacy series. Emma a young debutante is at a society ball with her two cousins when she accidentally breaks a binding spell, unleashing her and her cousins' magical powers and unwittingly opening the gates to the Underworld, allowing the evil Greymalkin witches to escape. To save London she will have to enlist the help of a young street urchin and Cormac, the boy who broke her heart. Full of wit and charm, this is fun, escapist fantasy at its most well-mannered. It has strong, resourceful heroines and heroes. It's one of those novels that give you a fully immersed reading experience and the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Courtship and Curses by Marissa Doyle (2012)

Set in 1815, Lady Sophie's first season in society would be perfect except for the physical and emotional scars of her childhood that keep her a wallflower at parties. When important members of parliament, including her own father, are the targets of magical attacks, Sophie and her friend Parthenope decide to track down the culprits themselves despite Sophie's unreliable magic powers and the distraction of Parthenope's handsome cousin Peregrine. This novel has it all: vivid writing, fun characterizations and a tight mystery all in one.

Bewitching Season (2008) and  Betraying Season (2009) by Marissa Doyle

Companion novels detailing the adventures of magical twins Persephone and Penelope Leland during early Victorian society. In Bewitching, their witchy governess Miss Allardyce is kidnapped as part of a sinister plot to bring down the young Queen Victoria. It is up to Persy and Pen to save the day using their magical powers all while totally ignoring and not causing trouble with their handsome and all-grown-up neighbor, Lochinvar. Betraying finds Penelope in Ireland, a year later, studying magic and ensnared in a nefarious plot by an evil sorceress, Lady Keating. Pen is encouraged to fall for Lady Keating's handsome son, Niall who is both his mother's partner and pawn. However Pen will need his help and the help of the clurichaun in the wine cellar, if she wants to beat Lady Keating at her own game. Magical adventure, history and just a hint of romance = frothy fun.

Sorcery and Cecelia, Or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (1988) by Patricia Wrede and Carolyn Stevermer.

This is a classic of the genre. In fact, it is the book that introduced me to gaslamp fantasy. Written as correspondence between two young ladies in 1817, it is the story of how Kate and Cecilia thwart evil wizards, an enchanted chocolate pot and find love in Regency England. It is pure perfection. It mimics the sound and feel of a Jane Austen novel so well you'd think it'd been written in the 19th century and not the 1980s. It is full of a irrepressible charm that makes it hard to be put down. Once you finish you'll be happy to know there are two sequels: The Grand Tour, which takes place not long after the first book and The Mislaid Magician which is set 10 years later. Suffice to say, Kate and Cecy never quite give up their taste for magical adventure.

A Matter of Magic (2010) by Patricia Wrede

When Kim, an orphan living on the streets, is offered money to break into the wagon of traveling magician Mairelon, she doesn't think twice. When she gets caught in the act she thinks she's done for instead, he offers her an apprenticeship and that's when her real trouble begins. Suddenly Kim's life is filled with magic, murder and intrigue as she learns to become a proper lady and a powerful magician. A compilation of two previously published novels Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward, this Regency set fantasy has enough action, adventure and romance to satisfy any fan of the genre.

A Great and Terrible Beauty (2005) by Libba Bray

Set at the end of the Victorian era in 1895. Haunted by her mother's death and plagued by psychic visions, Gemma Doyle is shipped from India to a dreary boarding school in England. Once there she must contend with mean girls, mystical visions, a secret Order and a mysterious young Indian man who tells her she must "resist her destiny". Well written with great world building and filled with rich details of Victorian life and society. Creative and fun, you'll be very glad to know that when you reach the end there are two sequels: Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.

The Beautiful and the Cursed: The Dispossessed #1 (2013) by Page Morgan

In a hot and humid Paris of 1899, two aristocratic, British sisters, Ingrid and Gabby, have come to the glittering city to make their societal debut but no grand balls or chateaus await them. Instead, they find a dilapidated, gargoyle-adorned abbey and their brother Grayson vanished. With the help of their handsome servant Luc and a dashing, Scottish bookseller, the sisters will fight demonic forces as the go in search of their missing brother. This is a vivid, sensuous, gothic fantasy with plenty of supernatural thrills and sumptious historical details. It will have readers swooning for the forthcoming sequel: The Lovely and the Lost and companion e-book, The Beautiful and the Cursed: Marco's Story.

Kat, Incorrigible (2011) by Stephanie Burgis

It's 1803 and 12-year-old Kat is just discovering her magical powers much to her step-mother's dismay. She uses her newfound (and untrained) powers to help her eldest sister Elissa fend off the sinister, and much-too-old for her Sir Neville and help her other sister, Angeline reconnect with her true love. This is a fast-paced, lighthearted, magical romp with feisty, spirited heroines and just a few historical details that bring the era to life. Kat's irrepressible adventures continue in Renegade Magic and Stolen Magic. For middle grade readers.

Stardust (1999) by Neil Gaiman

It is 1856, and beyond the rural English village of Wall is the enchanted kingdom of Stormhold that no one ever ventures into except to attend a Faerie market every nine years. One fateful night, Tristan Thorn ventures over the wall to retrieve a fallen star for the beautiful Victoria who has promised to to marry him if he brings it to her. Along the way he meets all manner of magical creatures and discovers his true destiny. At times funny, romantic and scary, this is more a fairy tale than true Gaslamp fantasy but Gaiman is a masterful storyteller who is not to be missed!

Queen Victoria's Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy (2013) ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

A new and wonderful overview of the genre that includes 18 new short stories by such notable authors as Gregory Maguire (Wicked), Elizabeth Wein (Codename: Verity), Jane Yolen (Briar Rose) and more. Some of the more intriguing stories are: The Governess, a young woman finds secrets and trouble in a Victorian household; in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, A magician-historian finds a young Victoria's diary and troubling secrets therein; in La Rein d' Enfer, an urchin with a talent for memorization becomes an actor, and in so doing not only rids himself of his pimp, but finds a dark power for his own. For older readers and fans of the genre.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke

It is 1808 and Napoleon is ravaging Wellington's army. Once powerful English magic has now dwindled to simply theoretical ideas and history until the reclusive, uptight Mr. Norrell reveals himself to be practicing actual magic and quickly becomes the toast of London society. When he takes on the young, impetuous and more glamorous Jonathan Strange as his apprentice a rivalry ensues that could bring down a nation. Expertly realized, this is complex, deep and enchanting storytelling all at once. It is an epic feast for fantasy readers. Older readers who are ready for a challenge will not be disappointed!


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Don't forget "The Peculiar"

Don't forget "The Peculiar" by Stefan Bachmann. It could easily take place in the same world as "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and it is well worth the read.

The peculiar

Technically, The Peculiar is considered more Steampunk than Gaslamp as it has gadgetry and inventions in it. But it is a great fantasy for younger YAs. A good add to any YA Steampunk book list.

The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Kowal's Glamourist Histories, four novels starting with Shades of Milk and Honey, are a fantastic twist on Jane Austen's world, in which the heroine is accomplished in the art of glamour: creating images by pulling strands out of the ether. Part drawing room romance, part fantasy part adventure (Napoleon's armies and pirates figure in later novels), all great writing and good fun.

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