Someone recommended this to me as:
"If you like unusual SF, you should definitely pick up Sean McMullen's Greatwinter trilogy of novels, starting with the first book Souls in the Great Machine. It's set in Australia (the middle book is set in North America) and it revolves around a post-apocalyptic society built slowly and realistically from the ashes of our own. You've got a kind of clock-punk level of technology in which fueled engines are religiously proscribed, yet society gets on at a pretty high level using workarounds like human- and wind-powered trains, long-distance communication via light signalling, and all the clockwork you can get your hands on. The main piece of technology around which the plot revolves is a human-(prisoner-)powered calculator, but the clockwork and trains play a huge part too.
The female characters aren't just "strong", they're actually real, genuine people - although the setting acknowledges gender inequality, many if not most of the movers and shakers in the story are believable women with authority, intelligence, and cunning. Male characters are similarly fleshed out, and gender (as well as cultural and romantic) conflict plays a part in the plot, but it's not heavy-handed or annoying, although some of the characters themselves certainly are (in ways that make them readably human).
The whole shebang is really well-grounded in Australian (and then North American) geography and culture, so non-Aussie readers would do well to have a map at hand while reading to get the full effect. In the second book, the North Americans fight their wars via duel-by-champion in wood-and-cloth airplanes, and that just racks up eleventy-million awesome points in itself. Saying too much about the third book would be spoilerish, but needless to say the tech is even cooler.
The main appeal, though, is that it's got dueling librarians. Like with flintlock pistols. And they do firing squads sometimes. And that is basically the most awesome thing ever."