|Cover from SteampunkShakespeare.com|
The problem is that nearly three months after the book's release, I haven't found any reviews of it anywhere, in print or on the web. There aren't even any reader reviews on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com.
Since no one else has stepped up, I have. Just bear in mind that while I think I'm being honest and fair, I'm also a rejected contributor.
As the title post suggests, the curiously titled Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes is a steampunk Shakespeare anthology, that is stories that are steampunk versions of (or at least inspired by) the works of William Shakespeare, plays and sonnets. According to the guidelines for submissions:
The cover is equally nondescript, depicting a (I suppose) Victorian-clad William Shakespeare, but one wearing a monocle (it's refreshing that it eschewed the steampunk cliche of goggles, but a monocle doesn't seem steampunky).
These are errors of carelessness, of inexperience (this is Doctor Fantastique's first book), of encroaching deadlines, but not insignificant for a 250-page paperback which retails for $20.
As for the prose content, the anthology contains 10 stories (also nine sonnets, but I won't be reviewing them). The guidelines said of the story titles:
We’d prefer inclusion of Steampunk elements in the title of each story, i.e. “Othello, The Half-Machine Moor of Venice” or something similar.
I took that to mean that the titles of the stories were not only supposed to incorporate a steampunk element but also a variation on the title of its source, so it would be immediately clear upon which work each was based. Most do, but some don't:
- “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello
- “Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” by Rebecca Fraimow
- “The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane (based on Romeo and Juliet)
- “Julius C-ZR” by Bret Jones
- “Much Ado About Steam Presses: A Scandal of Minor Importance” by Ruth Booth
- “Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander (based on The Winter's Tale)
- “The Misfiring Love Piston of Sir John Autumnrod” by Larry C. Kay (based on Henry IV, Part Two)
- “What You Fuel” by Jaymee Goh (based on Twelfth Night, or What You Will)
- “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell
- “Richard, Dismantled” by Jess Hyslop (based on Richard II)
Another problem I have is that most of the stories are not complete stories in and of themselves. I didn't expect each story to retell the entire play, but if they are only partial adaptations, then shouldn't they be self-contained segments? Too many of them just ... stop.
The guidelines for the anthology also included this suggestion:
We also welcome interpretations with queer characters, characters of color, non-heteronormative relationships, characters with disabilities, non-Eurocentric settings and other traditionally marginalized narratives in mainstream fiction.
That guideline could have been written by Goh. It's certainly in harmony with her desires for steampunk. Her own story, however, doesn't take advantage of that suggestion (although a couple of the others do). Why?
My favorite story by far was “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell, because it used steampunk to retell Shakespeare's basic plot in an entertaining way that was steampunk science fiction and told a complete story (almost the complete story).
In second place, “Much Ado About Steam Presses” retold that play from the point of view of Don John who, in this version, has a reason beyond malice for his actions. It's not the whole story, leaving off before John's machinations are undone (if they are undone in this version, although he seems to think they will be), but it's a satisfying chunk.
“Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander is almost as successful, and one of the multicultural stories (set in an alternate Louisiana that was never sold to the U.S. by Napoleon, and with a Creole/voodoo culture), with almost but not quite enough of the play to make a satisfying stand-alone story.
“The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane also almost works, setting the duel scene from Romeo and Juliet amid the post-American Civil War and recasting the reason for Tybalt's hatred of Romeo. I liked what there was of it, but it seemed too chopped off. I wish Kane would retell the whole play in this setting at length.
The other six stories have their moments, but are ultimately more disappointing than successful. “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello had a good idea: Lear as a steam inventor and ruler, whose daughters Regan and Goneril wage steampunk war over his kingdom with their own inventions (airships and tanks). I think Cordelia is a steampunk creation herself. But the story isn't effective at this length, or perhaps the writing isn't as good as the steampunk concept.
“Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” had an intriguing deviation from the original -- instead of death, Claudio is faced with being turned into a steam android, his brain condemned to exist without food, sleep, touch or most other human experiences, while his sister, Isabella, is voluntarily doing something similar as a variation on entering the convent -- but it's only a scene and has no payoff.