You can find an interview with Johnson about steampunk and strong female characters over at The Mary Sue.
Here’s an excerpt from chapter one of her novel:
Petra Wade stood at the foot of the University steps, her hands in the pockets of her borrowed trousers. Her heart hammered in her chest as she looked upon the gleaming monument of scientific study, the anticipation of this moment finally a reality. She nervously twisted the stem of her pocket watch, feeling the familiar click of the ratchet against the winding gear.
Until now her only experience with clockwork mechanics and design had been the weekly studies with Mr. Stricket after her shift at the pawnshop, repairing pocket watches and grandfather clocks, or making clockwork contraptions out of spare parts. Still, she knew she had talent enough to compete with the best engineers the school had to offer. Yet the Guild would never allow it. The world of tickers was the world of men.
So, slipping her hands from her pockets, Petra tucked the loose strands of her hair back into her borrowed cap and gave herself the once-over, making sure her brother’s clothes covered any femininity that might betray her to anyone inside. Satisfied that she looked the part, she marched up the University steps, determined not to let something as trivial as her sex stop her from pursuing the career she deserved.
Students milled about the door, discussing pitch circles and circumferential velocities. Petra’s skin quivered as she passed over the threshold, the rich scent of paraffin and gasoline in the air. The floor pulsed with the jarring oscillations of the subcity below, the steady hum of perfectly fitted gears vibrating within her bones. Her fingers twitched toward the screwdriver in her pocket. From the lobby, she could see a cluttered mess of schematics papering the walls of the main workshop. Columns of unused gears stood at attention in the far corner, waiting for an engineer to affix them to a gear train. Levers rocked and cranks spun, driving gears and sliders. Steam whistled through pipes. Blowlamps hissed and sputtered over metal joints. The workshop sang an engineer’s lullaby.
Petra grinned. She belonged here.
To the left and right of the entry, lift gates stood closed before clusters of students, the lights above the doors flashing yellow as the lifts sped up and down the shaft, disappearing beyond the high, arched ceiling—the brass so polished it gleamed like gold. From the lifts, stairs curved upward along the lobby walls, leading to the upper-level workshops, with the entrance to the main workshop just below.
Petra inhaled a deep breath. She could do this.
She marched toward the large, circular desk in the center of the entry hall, walking stiffly and purposefully with her hands clenched at her sides. Behind the desk sat a weedy, thin sort of man, annotating a printed letter. His hair was thin and graying, and he wore a name plate pinned to the breast of his coat: w. plaskett.
Petra cleared her throat.
“One moment,” he said without looking up, continuing to scribble in the cramped margin at the bottom of the letter, until finally he capped the pen and put the letter aside. “Yes?”
She cleared her throat again and spoke in the deepest voice she could muster. “I’m here to apply for the upcoming term.”
“Are you a returning student?” he asked.
Mr. Plaskett reached across the desk, grabbed a blank application file and readied his pen. “Your name?”
“Wade,” she said, her heart beating faster. “Solomon Wade.”
He scribbled the false name. “And date of birth?”
“March twenty-second, 1862,” she answered, knowing she didn’t look the least bit nineteen, though only two years shy of that age. She tugged on the brim of her hat, shading her soft features from the overhead lighting.
“Former institution?” prompted Mr. Plaskett.
The scratching of his pen stopped.
Petra stiffened. Solomon said they’d accept anyone from Eton. Mr. Plaskett bent over and dug through a drawer of files, mumbling the names of institutions as he thumbed through the tabs. She gripped the stem of her pocket watch and waited, panic creeping up her throat.
“Ah, here it is,” he said. “Eton.” He slapped the folder onto the desk and flipped to the back pages, running his long, narrow finger down a list of names. With a frown, he turned to the next page and scanned the first few entries. “Hmm.” He shuffled through a few more pages before finally closing the file, then clasped his fingers over the folder and peered at her with an accusatory glare. “There is no one by the name of Wade here.”
“Sorry?” Her voice cracked.
“I have a list of every student who has requested a transfer to the University from Eton, and there is no Solomon Wade on that list.”
She stared at him a moment, winding the stem of her pocket watch as she tried to think. She and Solomon hadn’t planned for this. She could demand he check again, but the name wouldn’t be there, no matter how many times he read the list. The winding stem resisted against her fingers as the spring tension in the watch reached its peak. Hastily, she released the stem before the mainspring snapped.
“So, I’m not from Eton,” she blurted out.
He eyed her properly now, taking note of her petite size and the state of her borrowed clothes—oversized and soot-stained. “No. I believe not.”
She raised her chin and stared defiantly back, refusing to be judged, refusing to let him think she didn’t belong just because she didn’t look the part. “You can’t stop me from applying.”
Mr. Plaskett leaned back in his chair. “I have no desire to prevent worthy engineers from applying to the University. However, as a nontransfer student with no credentials or statement of reference, I will need your registration of birth, a transcript of records from your former institution, a seal of approval from the Guild of Engineers, and your tuition fees for the first term. If you can manage that before September, you may then apply for the upcoming term.”
Petra’s heart sank. “What about scholarships? I thought—”
“Scholarships are for students of academic merit only, not—” He arched an eyebrow and appraised her with a sweeping gaze. “—the impoverished. We are not a charity.”
She tightened her hands into fists, the hair on the back of her neck bristling.
Mr. Plaskett smiled thinly—a smug, self-satisfied smirk plastered onto his face. “Now then, if that is all?” When she did not respond, he took her application file, balled it up in his fist, and tossed the crumpled paper into the bin behind his desk. “As I thought. Good day, Mr. Wade.”
Gritting her teeth with a grunt of frustration, Petra swiveled away from the desk and stalked toward the door. The prat. She shoved through a group of students, stumbled over a discarded knapsack, and fell down. Her knees banged against the hard metal tiles, and her pocket watch and screwdriver slipped from her pockets and skated across the polished floor. As she moved to reach for them, her hat fell from her head, revealing her long braided hair.
“Why, it’s a girl,” said one of the boys behind her.
Haughty laughter echoed through the chamber, attacking Petra from all sides. Blood rushed in her ears, and her cheeks flushed under their judging gazes. Not one of them came to her aid or offered to help. Of course they wouldn’t. She didn’t belong there—a girl dressed in boy’s clothing. Humiliation burned at the corners of her eyes. The vibration beneath the floor nauseated her. The smell of oil suffocated her. The clacking and shrilling of the machinery rattled her brain. She had to escape.
Biting back the urge to shout at the boys to mind their own business, she scrambled to her feet and snatched her things off the floor, stuffing the screwdriver back into her trouser pocket and jamming the hat onto her head. Her eyes stung, but she dared not cry. Petra Wade didn’t cry.
Her pocket watch lay on the floor a few feet away. The case had sprung open, and the watch face glimmered in the overhead light. Clenching her hands at her sides, she stepped forward to retrieve it, but a shadow crossed her path and snuffed the yellow gleam reflected in the polished surface. The room hushed.
A large, heavy man crouched in front of her, reaching for her treasured timepiece. His coat strained against him as his fat pinched and bones creaked, like an old, cumbersome machine running without oil. He wore a pin on the breast of his coat, a working planetary gear system ticking in a mesmerizing array of orbiting gears—the official seal of the Guild council. The largest of the gears was acid-etched with a floral pattern, marking this vast fellow the University vice-chancellor, Hugh Lyndon. His thick fingers closed around the gilded case of her pocket watch and fastened it shut. When he stood, the boys around the lobby snapped to attention.
Vice-Chancellor Lyndon stared at the watch, running his stubby thumb over the ornate C that decorated the front of the case. “At ease, gentlemen,” he said. His voice was deep and gravelly, and though he spoke quietly, it carried through the hall.
The room relaxed at his command, but the boys remained, the air in the lobby still and silent as they stared at the pair of them—the vice-chancellor of the University and this unknown girl—as if they were some spectacle.
Lyndon flipped the watch open, and deep frown lines creased his brow. The reflection of light on his round glasses obscured his eyes, but then the glare shifted as his gaze flickered from the watch to Petra. He seemed to be searching for something—fear, subordination, shame. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Gathering to her full height, she raised her chin in defiance. He might have been vice-chancellor of the University, but she wasn’t going to bow down to anyone, least of all him. He was the reason she couldn’t attend the University in the first place.
But he did not challenge her, did not ask why she was there or who she was. He merely looked once more upon the watch, and the crease in the center of his forehead deepened.
Petra watched him carefully, wondering if he had seen the watch before, recognized it somehow—but it must have been years and years ago, before she was born, before Matron found her and took her in. Her pulse quickened. If he knew something of the watch, knew its maker or who might have given it to her, perhaps he knew the answers to questions that had plagued Petra her entire life, questions she had all but given up on. The watch, and the screwdriver in her pocket, were the only two things she owned that were truly hers, found in her pockets the day of the fire, the day she became an orphan—but neither had led her to her home. Who had she been before the fire? Who were her parents? And why had no one come looking for her?
Slowly, Vice-Chancellor Lyndon shut the case over the watch face, again running his finger over the gilded C. Petra chewed her lip as questions bubbled up inside her, but she was too aware of the crowd of students standing around her, judging her, mocking her. She held her tongue.
Burying her curiosity and anger and humiliation, she held out her hand and, in the politest tone she could muster, addressed the vice-chancellor. “May I please have my watch back, sir?”
Lyndon glanced up at her, as if just remembering she was there. “Yes,” he said with a nod. “Of course.” Closing his fist over the pocket watch, he tentatively placed it in her palm.
Afraid she would lose her calm if she stayed a moment longer, Petra nodded curtly and left the lobby without another word, fastening the watch chain to her belt. Ignoring the silent stares of the students, she descended the steps into the courtyard, stealing a brass-plated bench on the far side of the square. The hot metal scorched her skin even through her trousers, burning the bitter embarrassment away.
She never had a chance.
Even with a disguise, even if she forged all the necessary documents, she would never manage to procure enough money to cover a semester’s tuition. She sighed and buried her face in her hands.
She would never attend the University. She would never become a qualified engineer. She would forever be the shop girl at Stricket & Monfore, or if Matron had her way, she’d be married off to some well-to-do idiot with no sense for mechanics.
A shadow passed between her and the sun.
“Guess you’ll be heading to work soon, then.”
Petra lowered her hands from her face and looked up at the leering face of the pawnbroker’s son, Bartholomew Monfore—Tolly, as she knew him. Beneath the brim of his newsboy cap, he wore a smirk to match Mr. Plaskett’s.
She fumed. “Shove off, Tolly.”
“Don’t be like that,” he said, plopping down next to her on the bench. He nudged her with his shoulder. “Now listen … me, Norris, and Hoyt are playing cards tonight, and we need a fourth. You in?”
Petra groaned. “Can’t.” She reached up, twisted her braid into a knot on the top of her head and hid it away with her cap. “I’m working with Mr. Stricket tonight.” Even if she wasn’t working, she would have come up with an excuse.
“Why bother? They said no, didn’t they?” he asked, gesturing to the University. “That’s why you’re out here pouting.”
“I’m not ‘pouting.’”
“What do you call this, then?” he said with a laugh. She scowled. “Oh, come on, Petra. That school is no place for you. They know it. I know it. Only person who don’t is you. Girls aren’t supposed to be engineers.”
“Shut up, Tolly.”
He merely shrugged. “Just telling it like it is, Pet. Someday, you’ll admit I was right.”
Petra stood up and exhaled sharply. “I have to go.”
Tolly grinned. “Don’t be late for work.”