Ah, Reuben, the poor bugger. The main character of our alternate history, Victorian, pony play novel, The Copper Horse: Fear, and he’s been through so much. Zombies, as well as the malnourishment and overpopulation of London that followed, crushed the world he knew. The chaos took his mother, brothers, and sisters, leaving him with a dominant father. But on the upside, Reuben’s father had a trade that was necessary for the proper functioning of the city. As a baker, he was able to establish himself in the East End.
This seems like a turn for the better, but a baker’s work was far from easy in Victorian Britain. Much more so in an alternate history world like ours, where access to food had been drastically limited. The city is enclosed within high walls, and even with some of the farmland won back from the undead, grain and other produce are scarce.
The work itself was very demanding historically. All the mixing was done by hand. Just imagine the young man in our book who was to become a proud stallion in the future. He was spending most nights bent in half over a trough, kneading all the ingredients and inhaling flour… along with all the potentially hurtful solid substitutes. No wonder the life expectancy of a baker was just forty years. And after a whole night of making the loaves and minding the fire in a time without thermostats and timers, he can only sleep so much before his father wakes him up, angry at his slacking son.
Bakers in the Victorian period worked on very tight profit margins. Bread made up a large proportion of the daily diet, especially among the lower classes, so it needed to be available and affordable. And what does the Victorian baker do when flour gets even more expensive than it used to be (or when he wants to earn more money for that matter)? He substitutes for a third of the flour with something else. And it can be anything as long as it doesn’t kill the customer on the spot. Ingredients of choice included chalk, clay, sawdust, or even iron sulfate and plaster of Paris. Ugh, horrible!
But the king of treacherous additives was alum. It’s now frequently used in modern detergents, so the thing that we now use to clean our bathrooms was used to adulterate food back in the day. It used to be extremely popular because of the Victorian obsession with white bread. Wholegrain artisan breads that we now see as healthy were considered inferior back then. In addition to being a whitener, alum retained water, making the loaf feel more substantial. The worst consequence of those actions was that bread, this staple of the urban pauper’s meal plan, was not nutritious enough to keep the consumer healthy. People would eat enough to fill their stomach but still become anemic and sickly. And obviously, in his situation, poor Reuben was eating the same adulterated bread as his customers. And adulterated it was at every stage of the food chain.
Along with animal fat, which was used for the dough, there are scarier things to be expected in the loaves baked by Reuben and his father:
Quality ingredients were too expensive for their neighborhood, so they had to subsidize for at least part of them with cheaper replacements, compromising on taste. Of course, that didn’t stop his father’s ingenuity one bit. If a customer tried to complain about finding some lice in the bread, the old man would say it was cumin. Cumin! They hadn’t seen proper cumin for a few months now.
A man working so hard needs his protein. But milk was frequently consumed after it had gone sour, with the acidic taste neutralized by chemicals – and I’m not even joking. No wonder that many people, especially children, were getting ill back in the Victorian period. And while meat was expensive in the nineteenth century, in the world of our Zombie Gentlemen series, it becomes even more scarce. For the sake of his own health, and in order to offer a broader variety of foods at the bakery, Reuben risks his life roaming the sewers and hunting for rats.
Over the years, he’d gotten proficient at finding good places for hunting, and he always returned home with at least a dozen of the rodents that made up a substantial part of his and his father’s diet. He actually liked their meat, which was good, because he wouldn’t be able to afford anything else, anyway. Reuben’s father also used it to make pies, their most expensive product. Officially it was ‘pork’, or ‘duck’, or even ‘pheasant’ when his father felt very fancy. But it was what it was and always tasted the same. Nonetheless, it was meat, and no one liked to be hungry, so customers would come and eagerly order suspiciously cheap ‘pork’ pies. After twenty years in locked up London, they probably didn’t remember what proper pork tasted like anyway.
And on top of that, Reuben’s social life isn’t too great, either. His relationship with his only remaining family member is virtually nonexistent and based on survival. Mocked because of his freckled skin and fiery hair, trapped in mindset that doesn’t allow him to get close enough to anyone to reveal his true self, he is lonely and miserable. With the life he’s been leading, even the prospect of becoming a human horse isn’t all that daunting. After all, what could be worse than a lice-infested life spent sleeping in the same bed with cockroaches and eating rat pies? Surely not becoming a prized stallion and getting all the sugar cubes he wants.
But that’s the path that awaits him in The Copper Horse: Fear, which my co-author and I hope you will pick up from Storm Moon Press. It’s available now in both ebook and print formats, and we hope the unique combination of an alternate Victorian setting, a backdrop of zombies, and a hearty dose of pony play will entice you to give it a try! Perhaps, like Reuben, you might find the change in scenery thrilling.