[This is the final entry in a set of five reviews - each looking at one of our 2010 Kitschie finalists. As part of our commitment to a transparent judging process, we'll run through each of the books in turn with our criteria in mind. Please take part in the discussion below!]
Aurorarama follows the adventures of Brentford Orsini and his friend Gabriel as they gallivant around the frosty streets of New Venice, fomenting revolution, uncovering lost secrets, engaging in a little Inuit cryptozoology and getting drunk. Orisini is an agricultural whiz and a political dilettante. Gabriel is a professor and notorious lech. Their friendship is based largely on trust - stemming from a long background of shared adventures.
The real star of the book is New Venice. Like Gormenghast or Viriconium - or New Crobuzon and Villiren - Mr. Valtat has created a unique and memorable setting that steals the show from its cast. The plot is a series of complex peregrinations that reveal more and more of his spectacular and memorable new world.
Progressive (but not wanky): It takes a huge amount of chutzpah to crash-land new readers into what is essentially the middle episode of a non-existant series. Mr. Valtat requires - demands - a certain amount of patience and respect from his readers, insisting that they don't wander off, immediately perplexed. This is a gutsy approach to genre fiction, which is almost invariably told in a linear, teleological fashion. Aurorarama begins in the midst of the action and - although it ends conclusively - it certainly doesn't wrap up with any degree of finality. The characters are evolving, but not evolved; New Venice is changing, not changed; the story is paused, not concluded. Whether Mr. Valtat ever returns to the setting is irrelevant, this is a sterling example of a book about progression, not resolution.
Perhaps more importantly, for a book dominated by its setting, Mr. Valtat refuses to succumb to the pressure of world building. Were this a conventional book, I'm sure the reader would be treated to interstitial pages of background mythology (in italics, no less) and an appendix that's half again the length of the book. Instead, the reader gets what they need, when they need it, in an organically-revealed way. As tempting as it is to spend time in New Venice's abandoned, sub-ice underground network, it simply makes a better story if the reader is only there with the characters. Mr. Valtat resists the urge to show off the full scope of his imaginative prowess and distributes what he needs to in order to make the book work as a narrative.
Fortunately, the very nature of the story allows Mr. Valtat to indulge himself a little bit. The protagonists are vaguely-motivated, quasi-chivalric men and their ambiguous quest is a meandering process that takes them through smoky den and gleaming palace alike. Through their eyes, the reader is shown the highs and lows of New Venetian culture. On the whole, Mr. Valtat's self-restraint is admirable - and should serve as a lesson to other genre authors with far inferior worlds.
Intelligent (but not arrogant): Beyond the narrative complexities of Aurorarama, as noted above, Mr. Valtat may have written the most noteworthy contribution to steampunk in almost two decades. Arguably, the last steampunk novel to capture the Victorians accurately was Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995). Anne is the professional Victorianist in our ranks, but even I can tell the different between "high fantasy with airships" and something that actually reflects the sincere (if patronizing) tone of the era.
Orsini and Gabriel are both representatives of the gentleman scientist - talented, upper-class aficionados who are both driven by creative and exploratory spirits. They are also, to Mr. Valtat's increasing credit, realistically-flawed liberals. Orsini is as revolutionary as a rebel could be without wanting to get his hands dirty. Similarly, Gabriel is as socially progressive as a man who still finds women to be his inferior can be. Both of them are reformers... as long as their particular crusade still provides them with their personal niceties. At the sacrifice of making them into popular archetypes, Mr. Valtat makes them accurate (and human).
Entertaining (but not trite): There is, quite simply, something for everyone in Aurorarama. Sex, drugs and rock n' roll are merely the opening gambit - add in zeppelins, revolution, Inuit mythology and kangaroos and the list becomes slightly more accurate. Despite the seductive style and intellectual layers noted above, Aurorarama is also very easy to enjoy on a purely superficial level: a voyeuristic look into the lives of some extremely interesting people. As with our other finalists, readers expecting traditional action will leave Aurorarama disappointed. There's a minimum of swordplay with the majority of the conflict taking place in dialogue, or, more accurately, in the gaps between dialogue. Everything in Aurorarama is subtle, and the action is no exception.
Special bonus points: The cover of Aurorarama is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Had we a copy to spare, the jacket would be framed and on the wall.
Aurorarama rejuvenates an entire subgenre, adding creativity and accuracy (historical and, more importantly, tonal) to a field that risks being defined solely by corsets and airships. Beyond its importance in legitimizing steampunk, Aurorarama is a sparkling read - breathing, human characters wandering amok in one of the most captivating cities in fiction. Mr. Valtat balances the tension of his story with the unique beauty of his setting.
So, what do you think? Is Aurorarama our 2010 Kitschie winner?