Emmeline Escot wants freedom and speed. Freedom from her restrictive life as an upper-class lady and the exhilarating speed of racing velocipedes. The Velocipede Races is a feminist, YA steampunk novel exploring the limited Victorian-esque constraints Emmeline faces as she tries to realize her dream of becoming a racing jockey while she navigates the pitfalls of her emerging womanhood.
The action of The Velocipede Races takes place in the city of Seren, a city-state on another planet that is much like late 19th century European and American cities. Women of Emmeline’s class have to follow the restrictive mores of society if they ever hope to be advantageously married. Emmeline’s world is limited to her house or the places that she can be escorted by one of the men in her family.
One of Seren’s major pastimes for men is watching professional bicycle races, which take place at the grand Arena track. Upper-class women never attend such events, but Emmeline disguises herself as a boy to see the lower tier races at a park whenever she can sneak away. Emmeline’s twin brother Gabriel, who is trying to become a professional jockey, races at the park and is their family’s great hope for earning money to help them escape their genteel impoverishment.
The only problem is Gabriel isn’t the twin who loves to race. Emmeline is. Emmeline has been training to be a cyclist in secret for years with Gabriel’s reluctant help. She loves to ride and chafes at how infrequently she’s allowed to train. Emmeline constantly has to badger Gabriel into covering for her and letting her use his old equipment.
In between her secret training sessions, her mother and father harp on her to be graceful, demure, and delicate, the admirable qualities young women like her should exhibit if she hopes to marry. Emmeline doesn’t care about getting married; she only cares about racing. But after an unexpectedly socially-compromising encounter, she finds herself on a rapid track to matrimony.
Author Emily June Street has a different focus for steampunk in The Velocipede Races, primarily concentrating on cycling gear instead of pseudo-scientific mechanical devices. Emmeline is understandably obsessed with racing gear, and has to make due with Gabriel’s old racing leathers and bicycle for much of the novel. When Emmeline gets her first custom racing outfit with shoes that fit and a fast set of wheels, Street revels in describing how free Emmeline feels when she is using the good stuff.
Street also does not glorify or fetishize Victorian women’s fashion, as many steampunk stories do, with riffs on buckled leather bustiers and layers of frilled taffeta skirting that somehow never impede female characters’ adventures. Street shows us how corsets and long skirts are a form of imprisonment for many women.
Emmeline hates corsets. They limit her ability to move freely and prevent her from fully using her lungs to breathe. She even contends they dull her mind, and after Street’s descriptions of the extent a corset hobbles Emmeline’s movement when she is forced to wear one, I believe they could. Long skirts also hinder women’s ability to ride two-wheeled bicycles, forcing them to use slow four-wheelers, a limit on her speed that Emmeline can’t accept.
The Velocipede Races is about Emmeline’s quest to express herself physically, and it’s only through achieving her athletic goals that she can begin to understand her own mind. I enjoyed getting to see a young woman using the development of her physical skills as her jumping off point to grow in her emotional life as an adult, and not solely the love of a good man. Emmeline needed to be free to race before she could fully become a woman.
The Velocipede Races is available through Microcosm Publishing. For more information about Emily June Street and her other projects, follow her on Twitter @EmilyJuneStreet or visit her website emilyjunestreet.wordpress.com.