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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Steampunk Soldiery Spotter's Guide

After the Great Meteor Shower of 1862, the world would never be the same. For the meteorites contained a substance that turned out to be an incredible energy source—Hephaestium. Its discovery and refinement would lead to unprecedented technological development and innovation, each of the Great Powers harnessing both Hephaestium and the technological advances to their own ends. In particular, to protecting their empires! Thus Great Britain enhanced its railway network with the Ulster Bridge and Shetland Run, built the first circumnavigation cruisers, and of course, strengthened her Royal Navy. Bismark fielded first Prussia’s and then Germany’s new armoured Sturmtruppen and Kaiser-class armoured infantry in a lightening series of wars that saw him cow Denmark and then in turn defeat each of the little Germanic kingdoms, princedoms, duchies, and so on. While her domestic armies were often mutinous, France had great success in her colonies, for example, the Peugeot-built steam-powered exoskeleton-equipped Foreign Legion units lived up to their ‘March or die!’ motto in driving the Chinese out of Indochina in a counterattack that would be followed by an invasion of China in 1876. Russia experimented with both the chemical properties of Hephaestium and submarines, the Ottoman Empire with automatons derived from German designs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire lured Nicolai Tesla back to develop a variety of Hephaestium-powered electro-weapons, while Italy, with no access to the precious meteorite, became Europe’s rogue state. Its intelligence services have stolen blue prints and prototypes, sabotaged others, and kidnapped scientists—they may be perfidious, but they are extremely capable. Perhaps the most radically changed country is the USA where at the height of its Civil War, General Lee’s land ironclads forced back the Union forces and held them to a stalemate until hostilities ceased in 1869. Thus North America has remained divided between the USA, the Confederate States of America, and Canada ever since…

This is the background against which the forgotten British artist, Miles Vandercroft travelled the sketching and painting the soldiery of the age. This artwork has been rediscovered and brought together in a handsome book published by Osprey Books under its Osprey Adventures line, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam. It purports to be a guide to the vivid and striking uniforms worn by the armies and the steam-powered weaponry and equipment fielded by these armies in the years between the fall of the meteors and the Great War of the Worlds. The descriptions of these uniforms, the arms and armour, and the units and the battles they fought, do much to capture some of the period’s pageantry and both honour and dishonour!

Of course, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam is anything but this. It is not a pictorial guide to the past, but a past that never was. A Steampunk Age of fantastic invention, intrigue, and warfare that is captured in this collection of gorgeous colour plates each accompanied by an intriguing description. For example, where did the 24th Regiment of Foot disappear to from Portsmouth in 1886? What brought Austria and France to war in which the French 6th Engineers used steam-powered drills to break into the supposedly impregnable Austrian castle of Hochosterwitz? There are hints and mentions of events like this throughout the book.

In places the authors have their tongues firmly ensconced in cheeks. For example, the be-kilted Highlander Battlesuits worn by the members of The Black Watch not only comes with a claymore sword, but automatic bagpipes that play Scotland the Brave! One interesting aside about the artwork in Steampunk Soldiers is that it has a certain familiarity to it. Many of the art is posed in a similar fashion to pieces used in a range of other Osprey Books.

There is an undoubted pleasure to be had in reading through the pages of Steampunk Soldiers, but its intriguing nature irks as much as it delights. For the reader is very much left wanting more; if not necessarily more images and more descriptions, but very much more background, more backstory, more detail. The implied background of this new Age of Steam begs for a second book, one with more explicit history. For what Steampunk Soldiers begs for is something that can be gamed—either as roleplaying or a wargaming setting. Naturally, there is nothing to stop a gamer from building such a setting from the material and background included, but it will take no little effort. (Of course, it is a pity that no suggestions are given as what games might be used to this end, but that would break conceit at the heart of Steampunk Soldiers.)

Ultimately, this is one book whose content is something that you want to a read a little more about. Easy to dip into and peruse for ideas, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam is a charming and engaging book that begs for a sequel or more information.