When most people hear the word “steampunk,” chances are that their first thought will be of Victorian-ish clothing, with goggles and a clockwork motif. Although this has become the prevailing image of steampunk in pop culture, it was originally a wonderful sub-genre of fiction that balances science-fiction and fantasy, usually in a Victorian setting.
Steampunk usually means 19th century England, with airships and alternate history galore, but it is so much more than just those basic elements. Whether you’re a long time fan just looking to see if there’s something good you missed or this is your first foray into the subgenre, here are 30 essential steampunk novels that you just have to check out.
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Long before the idea of steampunk was even a thing, H.G. Wells was writing science fiction in Victorian England, what was then a contemporary setting. In many ways, The Time Machine laid the blueprint for what steampunk would eventually be. It also happens to be a really excellent book, and one of the gold standard time travel novels. This novel is one of the most important in sci-fi history; aside from being influential as a proto-steampunk novel, it was also an influence on Doctor Who, one of the most enduring sci-fi series of all time.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Although not set in England, Jules Verne wrote during the Victorian era as well, just across the English Channel in France. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a sci-fi adventure novel far ahead of its time, featuring the famous Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus. Submarines in Verne’s time were relatively primitive, but he imagined a vessel far closer to what we have today than most believed possible at the time. Another example of proto-steampunk, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is another one of the great 19th-century science fiction novels, and Verne’s influence is still felt in the genre today.
Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
The man who would later create the name “steampunk” was K.W. Jeter, a protégé of the great Philip K. Dick and an excellent science fiction writer in his own right. His first steampunk novel was Morlock Night, a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In this novel, the Morlocks from The Time Machine travel back to Victorian England to attack using the machine left behind by the Time Traveller in the original novel.
Featuring Merlin and King Arthur as England’s heroes, it’s a fun adventure and a good example of early steampunk as we know it now. It is especially recommended if you enjoyed the original novel, but is an important piece of steampunk history regardless of context.
Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W. Clark
Another great early steampunk novel, Ronald W. Clark’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb features the threat of a nuclear bomb during the Crimean War. The Crimean War was a major conflict between the United Kingdom, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire in an alliance against Russia.
Several years before the term steampunk would be used to describe novels like this, Queen Victoria’s Bomb ticks all the boxes for classic steampunk, and also just happens to be a really interesting alternate history novel, even before readers had ever heard of steampunk.
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
Steampunk purists might point out that Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air is set in Edwardian England and not Victorian, but it still fits the bill in every other way. The first novel in a trilogy, Warlord of the Air features famous historical figures like Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin, and even Mick Jagger in an entirely different light.
It takes place in a world where World War I never happened, following an English soldier stationed in India. Featuring all of the classic steampunk tropes, including steam-powered technology like airships, Warlord of the Air is great if you like alternate history and have an interest in the early days of steampunk.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
A failed attempt to wipe out the British Empire by summoning Egyptian gods leaves behind gates that allow time travel to the 19th century in The Anubis Gates, an original and innovative steampunk fantasy novel. When the gates are discovered in modern times, a millionaire organizes a trip to the past where one of the group is left behind.
Professor Brendan Doyle then finds himself stuck in England, not long before the beginning of the Victorian Era. If time travel shenanigans and Egyptology are your jam look no further than The Anubis Gates for your steampunk fix.
The Rose of Versailles by Ryoko Ikeda
Although marketed as a shōjo manga and thus intended for a young female audience, The Rose of Versailles is a great series that will appeal to anyone who enjoys 19th-century flare. The steampunk elements especially come to life in the later anime adaptation, but if you’re interested in manga with a historical focus, The Rose of Versailles will appeal to a lot more than just young women.
The main character of the manga is notorious French monarch Marie Antoinette, and it follows her life shortly before and during the French Revolution. You may already know how the story ends, but The Rose of Versailles is an enjoyable ride that is one of the earliest examples of steampunk elements in manga.
Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
James P. Blaylock’s steampunk novel Homunculus is sometimes a bit off the rails, as it features space aliens and a dirigible above London in a decaying orbit, but is as fascinating as it is bizarre. Although technically the second book in a trilogy, the stories are so loosely connected that it’s perfectly fine to jump right into Homunculus without prior knowledge. It’s one of the better examples of steampunk from the 1980s. Just… be prepared for it to get weird.
Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter
The man who came up with the name “steampunk” returned to the genre with Infernal Devices, a novel set in Victorian England featuring all of the things that make the subgenre so appealing. The story centers around a strange device that allows people to see into the future but doesn’t allow time travel. The result is a strange culture clash, with modern vernacular being used in the England of the 19th century where the story takes place.
As if that wasn’t interesting enough, there are also fish people. Infernal Devices was originally a standalone novel when it was released in 1987, but it has since become a trilogy, as Jeter released two more books in the series in 2013 and 2017, more than 25 years after the original.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are both very well known as being originators of cyberpunk. Gibson wrote Neuromancer, arguably the first and definitely the best cyberpunk novel, and Sterling was the editor of the collection Mirrorshades, an essential sample of what that particular subgenre has to offer. They dip their toes into steampunk in their sole effort writing as a pair, The Difference Engine.
Their collaboration is one of the benchmarks for steampunk, as it established a lot of the conventions of steampunk going forward, including the use of futuristic technology in a Victorian English setting. It really is an essential read if you want to know about the foundations of what steampunk is.
Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn, Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell
Batman has a whole new look in Gotham by Gaslight, a reimagining of the Caped Crusader set in Victorian England. Instead of going after the Joker or one of his other usual rogues, Gotham by Gaslight focuses on Batman trying to catch the famed (and very real) serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Gotham by Gaslight remains one of the better Elseworlds stories in comics, with a twist that you won’t see coming to go with some excellent art from famed Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. It’s really can’t miss if you like Batman, steampunk, or just really great graphic novels.
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Anno Dracula is a really interesting novel in that it is not only steampunk but a sort of alternate history where fictional characters like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula run into real-life historical figures of the Victorian era.
The first in the series, Anno Dracula is really a vampire novel at heart, but if you like the idea of a Victorian whos-who of classic characters in fiction a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it is an absolute must-read.
Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter
Another alternate history novel set during Victorian times, Anti-Ice is actually set in a world where the creation of the mysterious titular substance has led to the abdication of the throne by Queen Victoria herself. Anti-ice is a dangerous substance that can level whole cities, and history changes course dramatically as a result. Stephen Baxter is a very prolific author who has written dozens of novels of all sorts of speculative fiction. Anti-Ice may not be one of his best known, but is still a good steampunk novel. If you like big historical narratives to go with your retro-futurism, Anti-Ice is a great choice.
The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo
If you like bizarre, you’ll definitely love The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo. The trilogy satirizes Victorian England with a steampunk setting that includes, among other things, a human-reptile hybrid with a resemblance to Queen Victoria and a voracious sexual appetite. As if that wasn’t enough, it also features a love story starring Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. This is definitely not the trilogy for you if you want a serious read, but if you like some wacky to go with your steampunk, look no further than The Steampunk Trilogy.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki
Anyone who likes anime in the slightest knows and likely loves Hayao Miyazaki, whose films have really set the gold standard for the genre. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind started as a manga before it became a beloved film, and the source material is just as engaging and beautiful. Aside from just being steampunk goodness, the manga incorporates an environmentalist message that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys Miyazaki’s work as a director. It’s really a must-read for manga lovers.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
China Miéville is known for his innovation and unique narrative voice, something that comes out at its absolute best in Perdido Street Station. His style isn’t for everyone, but his inventiveness is impossible to deny. Peridido Street Station blends steampunk technology with magic in the first novel in a series often described as “weird fiction.” The name is apt, as it is definitely odd, but in a really engaging sense that makes the novel a real page-turner.
Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve
If you want a more young adult vibe for your steampunk, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet is a great introduction to the genre. It features a lot of the classic steampunk tropes, but mixes in traditional sci-fi and post-apocalyptic elements to go along with the steampunk vibe. Although reviews for the later film adaptation produced by Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson were lukewarm, the source material is still widely beloved by steampunk and YA fans for very good reason.
Soulless by Gail Carriger
Soulless by Gail Carriger is the first novel in a series that mixes steampunk tropes with paranormal romance, in a really addictive series that has been nominated for many major awards in sci-fi and fantasy, including the Locus and John W. Campbell Awards. In addition to the love story and the steampunk world, Soulless features classic monster archetypes likes werewolves and vampires in a really fun and unique alternate history. This book will satisfy your love of Victorian steampunk with an enjoyable romance to go with it, and will probably having you pick up the next books in the series right away.
Worldshaker by Richard Harland
For more young adult steampunk goodness, Worldshaker by Richard Harland is a must-read. If you’re just looking for good steampunk, you’ll have it here, with the added bonus of classic sci-fi tropes and the clear influence of Charles Dickens. For readers who enjoy classic literature as well as sci-fi and fantasy, Worldshaker will certainly have a special appeal. Even if the real Charles Dickens isn’t your jam, Worldshaker is accessible on its own and well worth the read if you love young adult novels.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Some would claim that Leviathan isn’t quite steampunk because of its World War I setting, and it may incorporate more aspects of other subgenres like biopunk and dieselpunk, but if you like steampunk for the anachronistic technology and the sense of adventure, Leviathan will still tick all of the important boxes. The first book in an excellent trilogy, Leviathan is a retelling of World War I in which the Germans and Austro-Hungarians use giant machines called clankers to do their fighting, while the British have large bioengineered animals on their side. It’s a weird mix of retro-futuristic tech with creepy biological warfare, but in a really entertaining package that will appeal to fantasy and sci-fi readers of most age groups.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
Steampunk gets a makeover in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, the first in a loosely-connected series of novels that is now up to seven books. Instead of the traditional Victorian setting, Boneshaker takes place in Seattle, shortly after the American Civil War, where a digging project has unleashed a horrible gas that turns people into zombies. Although it sounds more post-apocalyptic than steampunk, all of the classic steampunk tropes are there to go along with the zombie vibes. For an added bonus, Briar Wilkes Blue, one of the protagonists, is one of the more memorable characters that steampunk has ever produced. Boneshaker is really essential reading for fans of the genre.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
If you want something a bit heavier and less escapist, Dexter Palmer’s first novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a great choice. In a futuristic reimagining of the 19th century, there are robot servants to go along with the usual steam-powered contraptions familiar to the genre. The main character is Harold Winslow, a struggling writer who works writing greeting cards. The story has a very Shakespearean vibe, as Winslow relates the story of his life leading up to his imprisonment on an airship that he can’t escape. It’s definitely not typical steampunk adventure, but proof that the genre can aim higher when it wants to.
The Infernal Devices Trilogy by Cassandra Clare
Not to be confused by the K.W. Jeter novel featured earlier on this list, Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy is a prequel to her massively successful trilogy The Mortal Instruments. Mixing steampunk with supernatural elements, The Infernal Devices is set in London in 1878 and features, among other things, warlocks, demons, and paranormal romance. This trilogy is another great example of steampunk for young adults, though it is engaging and fun enough for older readers to enjoy just as much.
The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
In a steampunky 19th century where the royalty are lizard people, The Bookman is a really lively novel featuring a mysterious assassin and a terrorist attack. It somehow perfectly balances literary heft with great steampunk adventure. The first in a series of books called the Bookman Histories, Tidhar’s world is one of the most engaging and enjoyable of any steampunk series out there. Strongly recommended for practically everyone who likes or has an interest in steampunk.
Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
Like Boneshaker, the second book in the Clockwork Century is an excellent steampunk story with a great female main character. The only major difference between the two is that Dreadnought takes everything good about Boneshaker and makes it even better. It has better pacing than Boneshaker, and Priest is clearly the kind of writer who just keeps getting better. If you liked Boneshaker, chances are you will absolutely love Dreadnought, a worthy successor that surpasses the original.
The Manual of Detection by Jedidiah Berry
If you want a bit of mystery to go with your steampunky goodness, The Manual of Detection is required reading. It mixes classic detective noir vibes a la Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with everything that pulls readers toward steampunk. The Manual of Detection is a unique, engaging novel that is written with a sophistication that few debut novels possess. It gets a bit dark at times, but never depressing, as it balances all the elements just right for a really satisfying read.
Hour of the Wolf by Andrius Tapinas
Hour of the Wolf is unique on this list because it was originally written in Lithuanian, and instead of Victorian England, takes place in the Russian Empire. The story has a lot of classic steampunk tropes and follows a former United States Marine. It starts as a murder mystery but becomes a story of political intrigue that includes secret societies, wizards, and steampunk airships piloted by alchemists. The book was also adapted as an adventure game called The Howler, which incorporates puzzles and airship piloting set in the same universe.
The Aeronauts Windlass by Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher is practically a household name among sci-fi and fantasy readers for his Dresden Files series, which has its seventeenth novel coming later this year. If you enjoy his style in that urban fantasy series, chances are high you will enjoy The Aeronauts Windlass. The first book in a steampunk trilogy, it still reads very much like Butcher’s usual style but has a different vibe with the steampunk elements, high fantasy intrigue, and some truly unique world-building. There’s a reason Jim Butcher has sold so many books.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Alan Moore is best known for works like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, which are genre-defining graphic novels that practically everyone who is into comics has read. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is something totally different but maintains the intelligence of the writing that makes Moore so special. Featuring a whos-who of 19th-century literary figures, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is steampunk, adventure, and fan service wrapped up into one satisfying package. It may feature characters like Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, and The Invisible Man, but is so much more than just a cool gimmick.
The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker
Indie publishing is becoming bigger and bigger every day in the sci-fi and fantasy community, and few have had more success than Lindsay Buroker. In just a decade, she has written dozens of successful novels and continues to put out new ones at a really astonishing rate. The Emperor’s Edge is her first novel, the start of a long steampunk series that mixes high fantasy, a great protagonist, and just a touch of supernatural. Not only is The Emperor’s Edge a wonderful example of steampunk, but it’s also a perfect case study for indie fantasy done right.