Steampunk Week: On The Origin of Bluebeard’s Machine (Abridged) by Mari Fee

On The Origin of Bluebeard’s Machine (Abridged)

By Mari Fee

Steampunk is a chameleon genre. Unlike paranormals, it isn’t defined by types of characters or use of magic. Unlike thrillers, it isn’t defined by the killer vs. good guys plot. Unlike historicals, it’s not always set in a historical setting. Sometimes it’s set in an alternate universe, sometime there is no science involved, and sometimes there’s no ‘punk’
with the steam. It’s… more of a flavour, an aesthetic (as defined by the Steampunk Scholar and a DIY ethos. It also has sense of irreverence and fun, but isn’t afraid to tackle the Big Issues in fiction – race, gender, privilege, class and inequality.

This chameleon-like quality is part of what initially drew me to steampunk. Also the goggles and corsets, because goggles and corsets are cool.

When Samhain Publishing’s Steampunk Romance Anthology call went out, a good friend of mine challenged me to submit. While I’ve always loved the genre, and romance in general, up until this point I’d always been a short
story writer. Writing a novella seemed impossible.

But then I had an Idea.

Stereotypically steampunk is all about engines, gears and the underclass, but at its core it’s also about science. Darwin’s *On The Origin of Species* and Gregor Meldel’s study on peas was floating the idea of genetics, while at the same time gothic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein warned against scientific hubris and abandoning ethics in the
name of progress.

These are big ideas – big, fun, scary ideas… and this is where I found *Bluebeard’s Machine*. The question isn’t “can we do this?” but “should we do this?” My heroine, Ada, has to deal with the consequences of a scientific breakthrough… although she’s got a very sexy, very geeky scientist to help her through the stickiest parts.

Ada, Isaac and the questions they deal with inspired me enough to pound out an entire novella – the longest thing I’ve ever written, EVER. It was amazing. It was exhilarating. It was awesomely fun. And I can’t wait to do it all over again!


Love, science, death. She is all three.

A Silk, Steel and Steam story.

Determined to discover what new experiment is stealing her husband’s attentions, Annette Parker ventures into forbidden territory—his study—only to discover a secret he would kill to keep. She is his fifth attempt to clone the original Annette and, according to his journal, he’s planning a sixth…after he dissects her dead body.

Unsure of who or what she is, she assumes a new identity and flees to the Orkney Islands and her last hope. The man she once rejected.

Isaac Ward’s first instinct is to get this mysterious “Miss Ada” out of his undersea laboratory—and out of his life—before he repeats the mistakes that drove him there in the first place. Her wild stories and stubborn insistence that they’re true wear his patience thin, but it doesn’t matter. She is as irresistible as the tide.

Then the truth appears right outside the portholes of his lab, stripping away her dubious disguise. Exposing a secret that could kill them both…unless Isaac abandons the science he knows for a second chance with the woman who broke his heart.

Product Warnings:
Contains mad scientists, wanton murder, identity crises, and boiling hot underwater sex. Submersible instructions not included.


The top of the column was pushed open by a large male hand, followed by a white shirtsleeve stained with ink, and then by the head and shoulders of Isaac Ward himself. The naturalist’s long face was clean-shaven, and he had fiercely intelligent green eyes beneath a tangle of brown hair badly in need of a trim, or at least a bit of grease. The beginnings of crow’s feet radiated from the corners of his eyes, which grew wide when he spotted Ada.

“Mr. Ward?” Ada’s cheeks grew warm as he stared. Dragging her gaze from his was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but looking at the sea was so much easier than looking at Mr. Ward. He wore his years well. Too well.

She cleared her throat and started again. “Mr. Ward, I hate to intrude, but I’m Miss Ada Powell. I…”

“Miss Powell?” The sound of his voice doubled the butterflies in her stomach. “Have we met?”

“Only briefly. Many years ago.” She forced a smile. “I, uh… I have a request, but this isn’t the best place to discuss it.”

“A request.” When she glanced at him, he was staring at her intently enough to make her squirm. “I don’t often receive visitors, Miss Powell.”

“I hoped you would make an exception for me.” Ada resisted the urge to look away fidgit as he studied her. This was not the man she remembered. Time had ground the softness from him, and perhaps running to him for help wasn’t as good of an idea as she’d first thought. He was a man of science, after all. Like her husband.

“Fine. You and Mr…?” Ward pointed at the Whitemaa’s captain.

“I hired Mr. Marwick to bring me here. He will return when I send for him. You do have a way to contact the—surface?”

“I have a telegraph.” Ward ascended the rest of the way up the ladder inside the column and stepped onto the platform next to Ada. Her heart thumped painfully at his nearness, and she stepped back without thinking
about it. He grabbed her elbow to steady her as her heels hit the edge of the platform. “Careful—you almost walked into the sea.”

“Thank you.” Ada put a hand to her throat and took a deep, calming breath as the ocean lapped at her feet. His hand radiated heat through the sleeve of her tweed jacket, and he waited another heartbeat before releasing her. He was taller than she remembered, and smelled faintly of brine and Indian

“Perhaps you and I ought to talk aboard Mr. Marwick’s fine salvage vessel. I’m sure it will be much more comfortable for a lady. My observatory is quite cramped—”

Ada shook her head. “I wish to speak with you privately, Mr. Ward. If you fit down that hole, I am quite sure I will as well.”

“I’m not sure I agree. Climbing a ladder in skirts—”

Picking up her carpetbag, Ada thrust it at Ward. “I am perfectly able to climb down a ladder as long as my hands are free. Mr. Marwick, I will have Mr. Ward send for you when I wish to leave. Thank you for your services thus far.”

“Any day, Miss.” Marwick tipped his hat to her even as he rolled his eyes at Ward, who growled something inaudible in return. The masculine exchange clearly said women! and it raised Ada’s hackles, then depressed her. If they only knew the truth of it, she thought dismally, then hiked her tweed skirt over her knees, sat on the edge of the ladder column and swung her legs into the hole. A ladder was welded onto the side of the round column, and the air coming up the shaft smelled of tobacco and salt.

Ada looked at Ward, who sighed and stuck her carpetbag beneath his arm. “We still have time to go to the ship.”

“Good day, Mr. Marwick.” Ada gathered her skirts in one hand and threw the majority of the fabric over her arm, then slowly descended beneath the waves. Her shoes rang against the metal rungs of the ladder as the light filtering through the portholes in the column walls became dimmer and dyed blue-grey the deeper she went.

The hatch closed with a clang that made her wince. Ada gripped the rungs a little tighter. “I’m not at the bottom yet.”

“Then keep climbing.” Ward sounded annoyed, so she took a deep breath of stale air and resumed her descent. There were thirty-four rungs in total before Ada’s groping feet found the floor.

Ward’s undersea observatory was a living room, kitchen and study combined. A leather couch and a black wingback chair bisected the room, and behind the seating was an electric range with a huge black hood. Copper pans and iron skillets hung against the wood-paneled wall above a massive wooden chest—presumably a pantry—and two heavy bookshelves loomed to her right. To her left stood a lamp with a stained-glass shade on a desk overflowing with papers.

Most wondrous of all were the windows.

There were four, two on each side wall, and behind the wavy glass was the sea. Ada gasped and crossed the room to press her face to the window. The water was slightly murky and she couldn’t see more than twenty feet, but beds of green-grey kelp danced in the current. Darting silver fish with bulging eyes swam in the seaweed, and purple starfish splayed across the rocks. Above the observatory was the dark belly of the Whitemaa. The Whitemaa’s hull was pierced with rows of portholes, perhaps because of the salvage operation Ward had mentioned. The ship seemed like a fishing vessel to her, but what did she know?

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Ward spoke from just behind her, and Ada jumped. Her heart fluttered as he reached over her shoulder to tap the glass. “Most people never see past tide pools and the fish that grace their dinner
plates, let alone *Ascophyllum nodosum* in its natural habitat.”


“Kelp. The forests of the deep, and largely taken for granted.” He turned on his heel and strode across the room, depositing her carpetbag and umbrella on the couch as he passed. “Why are you here, Miss Powell?”

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Mari Fee is a tea-swilling former archaeologist and current heritage conservation consultant living in Edmonton, Canada. She spends her days looking for old buildings and prowling through archives, and her nights reimagining a past that doesn’t look a whole lot like what actually happened. Other interests include adventuresome cookery, growing tomatoes, exploring, and indie music.* Interesting anecdotes include that one time Mari dug up a skeleton, and that other time she watched a black bear eat a box of Hot Tamales.

*Mari Fee is not a hipster, mainly because her little chicken legs look stupid in skinny jeans.

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4 Responses to “Steampunk Week: On The Origin of Bluebeard’s Machine (Abridged) by Mari Fee”

  • Cyn:

    I like the very essence of tackling the big issues while having fun and enjoyment. Great excerpt!

  • Oooo this sounds great. Clones and an underwater lab…nice combo.

  • Gayle O:

    OMG. I loved Mari’s bio. With her rich and fascinating past, I just know any story will be amazing.

  • Mari:

    Cyn – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! While we sometimes wish they’d just go away, the Big Issues won’t, and I know I find them much easier to think about if they’re sugar-coated in a nice story.

    Beth – I rather like the idea of clones and underwater labs myself! I want an underwater lab. Scuba diving never lets you stay beneath the waves long enough.

    Gayle – Tee hee! Thank you for the compliment! I hope “Bluebeard’s Machine” will live up to your expectations. 🙂