A two-sentence summary:
The evening before her mercenary company departs for the Balkans, Suhailah al-Saghira bint-e-Azzam meets a desperate stranger: Prudence Crewe, who claims to be searching for her runaway husband. Before they’ve exchange three words, Suhailah knows that the steely-eyed Mrs. Crewe is trouble—but Suhailah has a taste for trouble, and she could never resist a woman with a secret.
How did your characters come to be?
I’ve been looking for a home for Suhailah for some time. I created her ship and crew over a year ago, when I thought I’d be writing a comic book about her captain; unfortunately, that project never panned out, and the Ebony Horse’s crew had to wait for another war. When I saw the call for submissions for Steam-Powered II, I thought, “Yes! Finally, a chance to bring out my Moroccan mercenaries again!” The engineer Suhailah was always my favorite, with her keen mechanical mind and her need to uncover secrets. I put together Prudence Crewe as a foil for Suhailah—someone who would engage her curiosity and make her fierce intelligence work. I got a stunning James Bond of a woman for my trouble, and I couldn’t be happier.
Why this setting?
I’m terribly fascinated by 19th century Balkan warfare; if you check who allied with whom at any point in the drawn-out slugfest between Russia and Turkey, you could get a reasonable idea of European politics in the day. I knew when I started this story that I wanted to play with those shifting alliances in an urban, commercial space—a space as potentially potent in the steampunk imagination as Victorian London (but alas, woefully underused!). For me, Istanbul was that space: a commercial hub mediating between numerous confluent cultures, modern and urban and ready for war.
You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting?
“Dark Horse” takes place in a kind of alternate history and culture, like many other steampunk works; in this alternate Istanbul, I’ve treated lesbianism as largely a non-issue when it occurs in private, sex-segregated spaces. Female mercenaries make coarse jokes about it in coffee houses, after they’ve driven out the people who usually drink there, and Suhailah feels comfortable making an advance to a stranger in that enclosed space. Part of what thrills Suhailah about Prudence, though, is how brazen they can be together—kissing in the market, of all places! I wish I’d devoted more time to this aspect in the story, because lesbianism is an important cultural phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.
What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece?
I’m a huge language geek, so I really enjoyed playing with Istanbul as a multilingual space. It was also fantastic devising Mr. and Mrs. Crewe’s coded messages, which was a bit like piecing together a language of my own from mythological and literary references.
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