The Promise of Iron

My steampunk short story “The Promise of Iron” is available to read today in the Fall 2021 issue of Kaleidotrope!

Eszter and her brother scrounge to put food on the table in a Budapest beseiged by Napeoleon’s war machines. Forty years into the war, both sides fight with machines of steam and thaumic science, but a Jewish girl like Eszter can only dream of getting her hands on the gears.

Eszter pressed her forehead against the narrow window, watching the war-engines roll down the boulevard. The thirty railless cars progressed in perfect synchrony, shaking the tenement floorboards beneath her feet. She stared down at the stubby barrels of cannon, the smoked-glass lenses of eyes, and the mane of pistons emerging from each pressure engine. She wished the machines would pause there, beneath her window, where they seemed close enough to touch. But the automata continued their implacable roll southward, beyond her reach.

The Promise of Iron is free for everyone to read! If you enjoy it, and all the other excellent stories in this issue of Kaleidotrope, consider supporting the magazine.

Story notes below the fold!


This marks the third story I’ve published in this. All three stories stand alone, but Machines in Motion takes place only a few days or weeks after Promise of Iron, and The Wind and the Spark takes place another year or two after. Both stories were published in now-defunct magazines, so I’ve made pdf’s available via the links in this paragraph.

Promise of Iron was the second story I ever drafted, the first story I ever revised. That means I first set words to Word in December 2011. Whoa. Along the way it went through many edits, and became a finalist for the 2014 James White Award (under a previous name, “The Demands of Iron”) and the 2015 Friends of the Merrill Short Story Contest. Its bevy of positive reactions definitely encouraged me to continue on with my writing career, so I’ll always be in debt to this story – and delighted that it found a home in Kaleidotrope.

It’s not the first story I’ve published about Eszter’s life. The sequel, Machines in Motion, takes place a few days or weeks later. It was originally published in the now-defunct Hybrid Fiction in September 2020, and I’ve now made it available online for free via this link.

Someday I may return to writing Eszter’s story, because her path isn’t finished. She has a long way to go ahead of her.

This piece’s details were inspired by a series of my own experiences. The tension between Judaism and assimilation, my Hungarian family history, and a visit to Budapest. Eszter’s Jewish experience is not much like mine, but it draws on some of the same pool of history and possibility.

The story contains a mention of the Golem of Chelm created by Rabbi Elijah – not the familiar Golem of Prague created by Rabbi Judah Loew. They’re very similar stories, set in the 1500s. the tales of the Golem of Prague first appear only in the 1845, whereas the Golem of Chelm was disseminated at least in 1808, and may trace back to the early 1700s. In other words, the Golem of Chelm is the older tale, which likely inspired the Golem of Prague.1 And since Promise of Iron takes place as early as 1843 (forty years after the start of the Napoleonic Wars), Chelm is the version that Eszter would know.

It’s an odd timeline, isn’t it? Forty years of Napoleonic war. The reason I wrote it this way is because I was very familiar with the politics of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), because in 2004 and 2016 I wrote and ran a live-action roleplaying game in that setting. Thus, I set that date (and the contemporaneous battle at Waterloo) as my alternate-history divergence point!

I’ll finish with a thought about Steampunk that I’ve written before:

Steampunk can be a difficult genre to write in. Too much of it is tied into Victoriana, and all that period’s implicit assumptions and oblivious, imperialistic dreams. But even a steampunk Europe contains people at the margins, who have much to gain – and much to lose – as new technologies and brutal wars upset the world’s entrenched patterns.

  1. Source: Schwartz, H (2004) Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Oxford University Press, New York. 281-283.

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