Steampunk is a genre of fiction that often manages to both fascinate and irritate me. At its best, counterfactual histories in which Babbage built his Difference Engine and explorations of how this would have impacted Victorian society absolutely appeal to the science fiction nerd in me. All too often, however, we end up with yet another tale of cod-Victorians running around in brass goggles.
And so to Phoenix Rising, the first novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.
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!
I really wanted to like this novel, and it certainly started off in a spectacularly explosive manner as the decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone is set. A secret society is introduced and a novel featuring a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences certainly gives itself the right to throw a few peculiar occurrences at the reader. I would have been more than happy if the authors, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, had decided to tip over a few tropes and head off on a tangent of their own devising.
Unfortunately, they didn’t.
The novel starts off feeling like a jolly romp through a collection of Victorian and pseudo-Victorian stereotypes but, as the story progresses, things become more serious and the early light-heartedness is abandoned. This would have been okay if there had been some attempt to either explore the technology or the ways in which it had impacted society.
But it doesn’t.
In fact, Victorian society seems pretty much unchanged apart from the fact that people are running around with devices so ill-defined that they might as well be magic.
And the occurrences were nowhere near peculiar enough.
I found Phoenix Rising to be a rather strange book. While the two main characters were engaging and generally fun to spend time with, the authors never quite manage to decide what sort of a novel they want to write and the shifts in tone make for a jarringly disjointed read that never quite achieves its potential.
This is the first novel in a series and, while I would like to see more of Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, I’m in no great hurry to do so.