I was given the opportunity to review The Adventures of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward, the 53rd volume in Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces series. If I understand this right, Conversation Pieces is a series of unconnected short paperback books that facilitates the “grand conversation” of feminist SF (although there is a disclaimer that the books may not always be SF or even feminist).
This seemed interesting to me because I always enjoy reading stories from new and diverse perspectives, plus the Incognita Countess promised a steampunk adventure, which I always enjoy. So, in the end, what did I think of the book?
Incognita Countess tells the story of Lucy Harker, the upper-class daughter of Jonathan and Mina Harker of Dracula fame. In reality she is the dhampir daughter of Dracula himself and works for the British secret service as both a spy and monster hunter. She is sent on a mission by “M” to guard an America officer who is transporting the secret plans of the Nautilus onboard the Titanic, the allegedly unsinkable ship powered by Martian technology. It should be an easy mission, but things become complicated when Lucy runs into an Austrian countess who she learns is the infamous vampire, Carmilla. Its Lucy’s duty to slay her, but she can’t bring herself to do it and soon finds herself falling for the undead girl.
As you can probably guess from the above summary, Incognita Countess is a mash up of several public domain characters (I didn’t even mention the British lord who was raised by “apes” or the consulting detective from London who trained Lucy). This is one of the story’s strengths, since Cynthia does do some original things with the characters and setting (I thought using the Martian heat ray from War of the Worlds to power the Titanic’s boilers to be a clever piece of worldbuilding), but its also one of its weaknesses, which I will get into in more detail later.
All things considered, I enjoyed reading Incognita Countess. I thought Ward did a good job of portraying the romance between Lucy/Carmilla without resorting to graphic and overly-detailed descriptions of their sexcapades, as some authors I won’t mention have done in their books. To be honest, I don’t usually enjoy romances (and even now won’t seek them out on my own), but the steampunk setting made it more palatable for an alternate historian like myself.
That said, I need to address the clockwork elephant in the room. Many of the characters that appeared in Incognita Countess were a little too similar to other interpretations of them from steampunk works by Alan Moore, Kim Newman or Philip Jose Farmer. More often than not, when reading a steampunk work you will find, for example, that Mycroft Holmes works for British intelligence or Tarzan really wasn’t raised by actual apes. This isn’t, however, a criticism directed solely at Cynthia. I’ve noticed this a lot with steampunk authors who mash-up classic genre characters. Yes it can be fun to read about these team-ups, but its been done before so many times now that we really need to see new twists on these characters or else we need authors to start using more obscure fictional heroes.
Now that I got my mini-rant out of the way, I still think Incognita Countess is worth a read if you enjoy steampunk romances. Its a quick, yet well-written read, that even manages to present some uncomfortable truths about western civilization that can apply to the present day. Granted there was a moment near the end where one character is describing a daring escape to another character that went on long enough that it might have been easier to show it to the reader rather than tell them, but overall I don’t have any strong criticisms of the writing style.
If you like steampunk adventure and vampire romances, then climb aboard for The Adventures of the Incognita Countess.