‘Ink, Iron, and Glass’ by Gwendolyn Clare is the representation that the steampunk genre needs.
From the moment I realized that the protagonist was a woman of color I knew something would be different about this book. It didn’t stumble into the same pitfalls that steampunk does when trying to insert POC into their books, like making the white protagonist encounter a vast group of people that have a rich and deep culture (who just so happen to be POC) which they find enlightment in before peacing out and going back home. There is no need for a white savior/protagonist in ‘Ink, Iron, and Glass’ with an affinity for the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ syndrome.
Elsa, our protagonist, is her own savior. She, a woman of color who is interested in science and holds the power to create the unimaginable with just a pen, ink, and a book, is the person discovering the new and scary. She is the one heading out to save her mother. She is the one confronting her fears. She is the one who you connect with every step of the way. And honestly, it’s so damn refreshing and makes me want to create a portal of my own to ask Gwendolyn Clare for the next one.
Just because Elsa is the hero of the story, and a person of color, doesn’t mean that she’s doing this alone or that there’s no other person of color in this story. (Lots of books are guilty of this and it feels like they’re just trying to fill a quota. Not Gwendolyn Clare.) She presents more than one character of color who is essential to the storyline and who assists the lead in what she’s dealing with. As for the other people that are helping Elsa, they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. There’s no character overshadowing Elsa because they think they’re smarter, more educated, or polished than her. These are people helping each other because that’s what you do in trying times. You buck up and you help.
I’d also like to give Gwendolyn Clare major kudos for writing a story of a person of color…that is just like any other story. It’s important to write stories about POC that speak truth about their experiences as POC. But sometimes it gets too much, like if that’s the only story people can tell, the one about the POC finding their place in the world and the discrimination they face. Important, yes. Repetitive, hell yes. Elsa is just a girl trying to learn how to make through her day, how to depend on others when it’s just been her and her mom for such a long time, and solve the mystery of who’s responsible for all the trouble going on. She is wildly intelligent, passionate, confident, cautious, and the kind of hero I’d love to see more of in my books, tv shows, and movies. Basically, she’s relatable even to someone like me, who doesn’t live in a steampunk YA world.
Stories like Elsa’s are important to tell not because we need people to fall in love with well-written steampunk like this. (Just FYI, this is well written steampunk and you won’t be bored for a second with world building like this.) They’re important because we, POC, deserve to see ourselves in the stories we read. I don’t need to pretend that Elsa looks like me or the people who belong to my family, because she already looks like that. This book, the main character, her family, her friends, and the journey that these wonderful characters go on, make me feel like I belong and that I can go on adventures like this or write more about them.
I can be the savior. I can be the scientist. I can be the one who learns, grows, and finds a family of my own. And it’s books like this that make me feel like my story is worthwhile and at the same time just like everyone else’s. For that, I can’t help but recommend ‘Ink, Iron, and Glass’ and hope that others experience the same feeling that I did whilst reading it.
About the Author:
Gwendolyn Clare is a fantasy and science fiction author. ‘Ink, Iron, and Glass’ is her debut young-adult steampunk novel. Her pieces of short fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, Fantasty & Science Fiction, and Beaneath Ceasless Skies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award and she’s still in the market for a cybernetic left arm.
She’s a New Englander who has transplanted to Central Pennsylvania and has been lucky enough to work in Italy, Australia, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guyana.
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