The Empress of the Clouds by Desiree Ultican
In March 1896, Widow Evaline “Evvy” Amstel has been left with a tremendous debt―before he was murdered, her husband had promised to build and deliver a revolutionary airship, The Empress of the Clouds, to Erasmus Marchand, an embittered Southern millionaire who resents the fact that the damned Yankees won the Civil War. Now that Amstel is dead, no one in Joplin, Missouri, a zinc/lead mining boomtown, knows where the Empress is . . . or if it even exists. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin also has a stake in finding the airship. He has accused Evvy’s husband of stealing the original designs from him and is determined to recover the ship in order to build up Germany’s military might.
Evvy takes over her husband’s failing airship company and the company thrives for a time. But Marchand is fanatical in his quest to find the Empress―to arm it with a weapon of mass destruction at a pivotal moment in history and instigate anarchy. He’ll stop at nothing to achieve his vision and Evvy is proving to be a huge impediment. It’s up to her and local deputy Sean McTavish to find the airship before Marchand or Zeppelin does, because the future of the United States is in peril.
The Empress of the Clouds is a steampunk adventure. This alternative history tale features a spunky resourceful heroine who doesn’t allow adversity and evil to overpower her but seizes control of her own destiny.
Targeted Age Group:: YA, Adult
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was inspired by a lifelong love of history, science and the 19th century's push into the modern era.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of all, I wanted a strong heroine (Evaline Amstel) with flaws and strengths, ready to battle limitations because of her sex at the turn of the last century. I wanted to introduce a formidable villain (Erasmus Marchand) as a foil, one with intelligence and vision, but distorted by hatred and narcissism. Lastly, I wanted to introduce a possible romantic interest (Sean McTavish) but mostly wanted a "best buddy" for Evaline, a faithful friend she could turn to at the most desperate times.
For the first three flights, Evaline sat beside Bergendahl in the Savanthia’s co-pilot’s seat. The rail-thin, blond man patiently explained each component of the control panel to her—from the gauge that monitored the temperature of the steam engine to the one that indicated the speed of the chain drive to the propellers. He demonstrated the use of the ballonets and how inflating and deflating them determined the altitude. A large wooden wheel steered the rudder, and he emphasized how sensitive this wheel was to any slight movement on her part. He gave her a checklist of steps necessary to ensure the dirigible was flight-ready before leaving the ground. He had the temperament of a perfect teacher—allowing her to take copious notes, patiently repeating answers to questions that came up again and again. Once she mastered the instrumentation and control of the airship, subsequent lessons would involve navigation and route planning.
But more than once, Lars emphasized that despite all the “book learning” and rote memorization of the functions of the airship, one required an innate ability to use the five senses and intuition in evaluating changing weather conditions, to tackle unforeseen challenges and in developing an instinct for how the craft would respond to her direction.
“And each ship has her own mind! Remember that, Evvy. You will have to pilot the other ships differently than you are piloting the Savanthia. If you hit an air pocket with the Revolutia and you handle her the way you would the Savanthia, you might find yourself hanging upside down in the treetops!”
While Evaline sat beside her instructor and absorbed all the wisdom he imparted, she couldn’t help but ponder the fact that this knowledge was kept from her while Heinz was alive, all the while she bankrolled the operation. Why was I content to attend ladies’ teas, do needlework or read fanciful novels when I could have been flying? she asked herself. If I had been more curious and daring, I could have shaped my life, instead of letting it shape me. Finally, I am in control of my own destiny.
At long last, on a late June day accompanied by perfect weather, Evaline Amstel took over the pilot’s seat. Without any prompting from Lars, she painstakingly followed the procedures he had laid out. She had been so confident she could easily take to the skies, but it proved much more challenging than she had anticipated. A few minutes after becoming airborne, an unexpected sudden breeze swept the airship sideways. The novice pilot over-corrected at the helm and the ship made a head-spinning 360-degree turn. A moment of panic engulfed Evaline before she regained control. She glanced quickly to her right to catch a pale-faced Lars struggling to keep his composure—she had scared him nearly to death!
But she quickly “got the hang of it,” so to speak. As the airship glided over the countryside near Joplin, Evaline felt an exhilarating feeling bubble up inside her that was unlike anything she had felt before. The fact that she controlled this airborne conveyance thrilled her to the core. Although she was not fond of heights she felt cradled by the Savanthia and was confident that the ship would not let her down. After the initial tussle with the wind, the airship obeyed her every move. If she chose to go left, an ever-so-slight turn of the wheel sent the airship gracefully adjusting its course. An application of a firm hand to the throttle lever lowered the engine’s output, slowing the propeller revolutions and reducing the airship’s speed.
Far below the ship lay the small ball-like shapes of lush green trees, clusters of brush along the fence lines, and the cultivated squares of various planted fields. She saw a farmer stop his ox-cart, jump down and run along the road, waving at them excitedly with both arms. The water in the farm ponds, small streams and the larger Shoal Creek acted as a mirror—the brilliant sun reflected off the surface and a few times the light was blinding. She made a mental note to wear Heinz’s dark-lensed traveling spectacles the next time she flew.
Lars gestured for her to turn toward town. Although she had flown as a passenger in Heinz’s ships a few years ago, she had forgotten how breathtaking the view was from an altitude of several hundred feet. The roofs on the commercial buildings were a patchwork of grays, blacks, and browns. Residential areas varied a great deal, from several tiny houses crammed into a block to the carefully manicured lawns and gardens of large estates. People, horses and wagons bustling below were as small as insects.
“It’s so…magnificent. Incomparable,” she enthused. She glanced over to Lars’ grinning sunburned face. “It is no wonder you love flying, Lars!”
The blimp was a living thing to her, as real a creature as her horses Genii or Squire, and as compliant to her commands. And, it seemed, as fond of speed. She confided this whimsical observation to Lars, who nodded in agreement. “You have the makings of a true pilot, Evvy! That is how we all feel about these ships—they are full of life! Treat them well, and they will respond in kind.”
After a thirty-minute flight, Lars guided her through the landing process. Despite her best efforts, she could not get close enough to the docking tower and the blimp awkwardly floated 20-25 feet above the ground while she tried to maneuver it into place (difficult to do since it could only be steered in one direction—forward). After raising and lowering the Savanthia three times, finally on the fourth attempt the ship was close enough to the tower to harness it into place. Still, it was a heavy-handed attempt as the gondola connected with the launch pad with a rough thump. It settled, half on and half off the pad.
Lars patted her shoulder as she apologized for her lack of skill. Marcus Hubbley approached them, ruefully shaking his head as they climbed out of the gondola.
“Aww, you did fine, Evaline. Pay no attention to the old man! The Savanthia is a tough old bird, but you made her soar like an eagle!” Bergendahl turned to the grimy mechanic and crowed, “Mrs. Amstel did it, Hubbley! She has wings, too!”
Evaline grinned widely at both men. She could not help but fling her arms around and hug the usually stoic Swede in gratitude and relief. She had piloted her airship successfully. For a brief, glorious period, she had conquered the skies.
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