Think of it this way. If the kind of technology in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea actually worked, if all those marvelous Victorian steam-powered machines, and we used airships like the Hindenburg instead of airplanes, well, that’s steampunk. Sometimes there’s magic, and sometimes there’s an extra element in the periodic table that powers the steam technology, but there are always airships. And lots of gears.
Steampunk often takes alternate history down a dark path where something terrible happened, or was discovered, or the U.S. Civil War never ended, or all of the above. For a marvelous work of steampunk of this type, you can’t beat Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, which has the added bonus of being set in a steampunk post-apocalyptic version of our very own Seattle.
There are definitely steampunk romances. They range from the mostly alternate history to the downright paranormal variations of steampunk worlds, and from the sweet to sauna-like levels of steam intensity. For those who enjoy their romances filled with gears and gadgets and airships, there are plenty to choose from.
Gail Carriger’s Soulless is the first volume in her steampunk Parasol Protectorate series. It definitely falls on the paranormal side of the steampunk equation. There are airships, and the equivalent of the telegraph, as well as a host of other fantastic gadgets and mechanized constructs. But the heart of this series is the main character, Alexia Tarabotti, a woman who breaks all the rules of society and has all the fun. She starts by attacking a vampire with her parasol, and ends by marrying the werewolf of her dreams. Readers who enjoy comedies of manners with sharp-tongued wit will love this series.
For those who prefer their romance set in a less fantastical alternate history, The Blades of the Rose series by Zoe Archer has a much lighter touch of steampunk and will remind readers a lot more of a Victorian era Indiana Jones. Starting with the first book, Warrior, a secret society of Victorian men and women seek magical artifacts across exotic settings using any means necessary, including some gadgetry that definitely did not exist in the world we know. Archer does a marvelous job creating not just an alternate world, but fantastic love stories between equal adventurers.
And to add a touch of demonic possession and Wild West action to your steampunk romance, you can’t go wrong with The Legend Chronicles by Theresa Meyers. This series is about three brothers who have inherited the hunt for a magical artifact that will seal the demons away from the world forever. Their generation is chosen to finish the fight. Each book in the series, The Hunter, The Slayer and The Chosen, tell the story of their quest, and the tale of how each brother falls in love with a totally unsuitable woman, as they fight demons, ride mechanical horses and airships, and use primitive computing engines to rid the world of evil.