Rokuro Inui’s 2014 Automatic Eve is a standalone steampunk novel. The 2019 English translation is by Matt Treyvaud.
A generation ago, tragedy struck when the Empress died in childbirth. Fortunately for the strictly matrilineal imperial family, her infant daughter survived. Better an infant empress and a regent than no empress at all!
Struck by a mysterious malady as a teen, the Empress is a recluse. The Shogunate is not displeased by this, as her seclusion leaves the administration of the nation up to the Shogun and his subordinates. They have no reason to fear that the Empress might actually attempt to rule. As far as the common folk know, the nation is ticking along just as it should.
Behind the scenes, however…
Officially, Kyuzo Kugimiya is an assistant at the Tempu refinery, which was once an industrial complex and is now a centre for research and development. “Assistant” is a vague title. It could mean something as lowly as “secretary.” But Kyuzo’s lavish home suggests a lofty status at the cutting-edge research facility. He lives with a young woman named Eve (said to be his daughter, but ???).
Kyuzo has an amazing talent for creating automata. Give him the right incentive (sometimes money, but not always) and he will create complex mechanisms that seem almost alive. Alive enough to have a will of their own, a will that is sometimes displeasing to their new owners.
Kyuzo is also the focus of rumor. He is said to have been associated with Keian Higa. Keian’s Institute of Machinery was the centre for mechanical research until its master was executed for conspiring against the Shogunate. Those of his students who were not executed or imprisoned were dropped from the census lists, thus consigned to miserable lives as unpersons. How Kyuzo managed to avoid death, prison, or beggardom is an open question.
It falls to Shogunate intelligence agents Jinnai and Kasuga (a lady of the inner chambers) to unravel the mystery of Kyuzo’s past, the nature of his doting companion, and what precisely transpired all those years ago when the late Empress died.
It’s probably pointless to try to treat this as an alternate history even to the extent the steampunk genre is AH. The setting is seemingly Japonesque … but the word “Japan” appears nowhere in the text. The novel, like so many fantasies, takes one period, one place, and twists it to plot needs. Its treatment of history is close to Wings of Honneamise than, say, The Empire of Corpses.
Although … there’s a possibility that this novel could be set in a distant future. We know there was an Age of Myth and that one relic of that Age of Myth is the Sacred Vessel. I won’t tell you what the vessel is (because spoiler) but I can say it isn’t magical or divine. It could be duplicated by a sufficiently talented technician.
Of course, Kyuzo might argue that life does not feature a nice dividing line between the mundane and the spiritual. It’s hard to say if an object or person has a soul, but it is possible to say that some act as though they did. This class includes but is not limited to people of one sort of another .
Automatic Eve might seem to be a collection of related stories when one first starts reading. By the end of the book, the stories coalesce into a tightly plotted novel. (A technique used to great effect in China Mountain Zhang.) Good thing my website does not require me to classify works as collections or novels!
This was reportedly the final Haikasoru novel edited by Nick Mamatas for the Haikasoru line. It’s a fine example of the sort of book I wanted to read and had learned to expect from Haikasoru. May the success continue under new management.
1: Perhaps if he had travelled widely and experienced more of the world he might have been able to distinguish between souled and soul-less entities … but this is a land without a touring test. [Editor’s note: GROAN!]