Title: Phoenix Rising
Genre: steampunk, historical fiction, supernatural fiction
Series: Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences #1
Pages: 402 pages (paperback edition)
Published: April 2011
Evil is most assuredly afoot—and Britain’s fate rests in the hands of an alluring renegade . . . and a librarian.
These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing, washing up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences—the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and unsettling—will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest . . . and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Wellington Books, along with her into the perilous fray.
For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun—he with his encyclopedic brain and she with her remarkable devices—must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot . . . or see England fall to the Phoenix!
This was just great fun for me to read once it hit its stride - Phoenix Rising has nice mix of the best elements: a finely tuned use of steampunk and its gadgets, two vastly different but strangely compatible, rounded main characters, amusing banter, and a plethora of smart antagonists against which to pit their brains and Braun. The first hundred pages are used quite effectively to establish each of the individual characters and the world in which they operate, but they are slower in pace than the following three hundred. Once the essential basics are nailed down and the plot has kicked in, this steampunk fantasy is a wild ride full of airship rescues, bar brawls, lots and lots of explosions, (broad)sword fighting, and multiple secret societies - obviously this is a book that kept me on my toes with twists and turns. The first in a series of at least two novels, Phoenix Rising is a good harbinger of hopefully more madcap adventures to follow in Old Blighty with Welly and Eliza.
Eliza D. Braun is a "successful but not smooth" field agent and is so relegated to the Archives and Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire. With typical gender roles reversed in this Sherlockian pairing of odd bedfellows, Eliza being the muscle and trigger-happy and Books the, well, bookish one, these two agents are an interesting mix of humorous banter, keen intelligence and walking armoury. There's no dearth of smart, capable women to be found in the book (hello, Sophia!), but Eliza manages to be both feminine and convincingly menacing in exactly her own brand (read: the girl likes weapons and knows how to use them.) It's also thoroughly refreshing to see a woman be the hero and ride in, guns blazing, to save
the day her partner. Multiple times. The colonial from New Zealand's counterpart in Archivist Wellington is reserved, by the book - the straight man to her more free-wheeling approach to Ministry business. They are total opposites in nearly every manner and opinion, but their banter is truly amusing - I lol'd several times while speeding through. Wellington does come rather close to being a caricature of a librarian but his vaguely-defined personal history and a slow-reveal show him to be a rather more complicated man than it can first appear. This is obviously a more plot-driven novel, but to the credit of Phoenix Rising's cast, the characters are dimensional and can create credible pathos with the reader during their alternating POVs.
*These last few paragraphs are going to get a bit spoilery.* This book has been out a year so... just be warned. Though the early action scenes lacked a certain momentum and pull, the plentiful adventures later on more than made up for it (A death carriage with spinning wheels of spiky doom a la the car race in Grease? Why not?!) With the exception of the initial and introductory part of the novel, Phoenix Rising is filled to the brim with action, death and unsavory characters. With the addition of sparingly few but appropriate gadgets (the auralscope, analytical engine, the Combobula!), these two authors create an added dimension to their supernatural world without overdoing it on the clockwork. Unlike the somewhat laughable wax/mechanical steampunk/automaton army that was shown as a national threat in Kady Cross's The Girl with the Steel Corset, these Mechamen can actually carry a palpable menace and are juuuust right for a steampunk mystery centered around a case called the "Rag and Bone" murders. Of course there are mentions of "aether" and "corsets" (bulletproof this time! Much a smarter than just steel) but by and large, the inventions here are unique and original to Books, Mad McTighe or other characters herein.
Aside from my shallow and negligible complaint about the pacing of the first few chapters, all was going nearly perfectly (exception: Ferdinand Magellan was Portuguese, not Spanish) except for two little things: #1. the Phoenix Society Initiation Weekend's orgy. While it wasn't overly crass or vulgar, it also seemed
totally somewhat unnecessary to the plot. The whole "women as communal property" was also distasteful, but I understood the point being made behind the sexist attitude - the orgy? Not so much. Olivia's essential pimping out (and drugging) of her young niece was also unexpected and randomly distasteful. #2. Other readers might have issues with the style of the book as well - the chapter titles are often ominous, if not outright spoilery in themselves. Titles like "Wherein Our Heroes Endure Perdition's Flames" are pretty much the general bent the authors chose. While certain key plot points and twists aren't explicitly revealed, it can take the edge off some of the adventures that are forthcoming.
Though the main events and plotlines of Phoenix Rising have been neatly <spoiler>disposed of</spoiler> wrapped up, there are several plotlines that extend themselves quite naturally to the second novel. Due out later this month, The Janus Affair is sure to be a closer look at the Moriarty-like mastermind behind both the Phoenix Society and Sophia amid quarrelsome banter and unlikely escapades. I for one am quite glad I have the second novel to hand - I didn't want the first to end as quickly as it did (downed in one day) so I'll have to draw out my second outing with Books&Braun. Fans of steampunk should take note and give this inviting novel a try.
"Gods... the sacrifices I make for Queen, Country, and all the pommy bastards that live in it."
"The show really does go on.."
Also: how cool is the German cover?