Miss Ella Rosenfeld has been committed to Auttenberg Asylum for her hallucinations of ghostly apparitions. But even more frightening than the idea of going mad is the possibility that the ghosts are real, and they are warning Ella about the fate that awaits her in the asylum. Ella’s first frightening night at Attenberg sets the scene for the rest of Ghost Machine: A Gothic Steampunk Novel by Kristen Brand. When the author first contacted me to request a review, I knew from the subtitle that this book would be right up my alley. Ghost Machine flawlessly blends various elements of both steampunk and the gothic in everything from the setting to the style and characters. With two genres that are both known for their melodrama and tendency to go over the top, Kristen Brand does a remarkable job of staying grounded and keeping the all too common campiness to a minimum. Ghost Machine is a gem among the many self-published ebooks of Amazon, and I am grateful to the author for bringing this one to my attention!
Ella Rosenfeld begins seeing ghosts after being caught in an explosion at the ball celebrating her debut into society. Her scientist father had brought her to Transylvania when he was hired to work for the mysterious and brooding Baron Victor Szarka. But instead of enjoying her first Season amongst the Eastern European nobility, Ella finds herself alone in a foreign insane asylum. At first determined to cooperate fully in order to be cured as quickly as possible, Ella soon begins to suspect that the doctor and nurses of the asylum may not have her best interests at heart. And the ghost of a hanged woman who floats above her bed at night doesn’t exactly reassure Ella of the asylum’s ability to cure her. When Ella makes a daring escape attempt, she becomes entangled in a complex plot that is far more dangerous than she could have realized.
Ghost Machine has a whole lot going on in it, and yet the different elements work together in harmony rather than feeling disjointed or overwhelming. I noticed this characteristic most when it came to the setting of the story. The novel takes place in an alternate world where the late Victorian era is characterized by flying airships, clockwork automatons, and mad scientists, and it is set mostly in the oh-so-gothic country of Transylvania. The action moves between typical gothic settings, such as a haunted asylum and ancient castle with secret passages, and settings more familiar to the steampunk genre, like an airship piloted by a mercenary crew. However, as I will touch on later in this post, each different setting is suited to the action that takes place in it.
Another element that adds to the gothic flair is the writing style. Though the book is not written entirely in the epistolary style, snippets of Ella’s journal entries along with the occasional text of a letter serve to evoke the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that told their stories in this format.
The most interesting combination to come out of Ghost Machine is the blending of Gothic and steampunk heroine tropes. Gothic heroines are often young women who have been separated from their immediate families, and who come to live, unprotected, in a new, dangerous place amongst people who may do them harm. They often explore and uncover dark mysteries in their new home before they must escape its other inhabitants. Think Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, who has come to the castle to be wed and is instead pursued by her dead groom’s father, or Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is left in the hands of her scheming uncle in a remote castle after her father’s death. Steampunk heroines, on the other hand—though they don’t stick as much to a single trope—tend to have more agency and intentionally set off on their own adventures, traveling about and often taking on roles more associated with men. They also have a particular tendency to be the daughters of inventors or mad scientists. Ella Rosenfeld in Ghost Machine is all of these things. At the beginning of the novel, she has been taken from her family and thrust into the ominous Auttenberg Asylum. She later finds herself again alone and without allies in the castle of Baron Szarka, whose motivations she doesn’t trust. In both of these locations, all she can do is wander around uncovering secrets, and a change of scenery only comes when she is fleeing for her life. But once outside of these traditional Gothic settings, Ella becomes more active. She disguises herself in men’s clothing, traverses long distances alone, has adventures with an airship crew, and becomes a protector instead of merely the prey. She uses her knowledge of her father’s inventions combined with her newfound supernatural abilities to puzzle out her enemies’ secrets and expose them to the world. The two roles complement each other and show both Ella’s complexity and her growth as a character.
If you’re interested in checking out Ghost Machine for yourself, it’s available as an ebook from Amazon. To learn more about the author, Kristen Brand, check out her website, where you can also read some of her short fiction online. Did Ghost Machine pique your interest? Do you have other good gothic-steampunk combos to recommend? Let me know in the comments.