Much of my reading is dominated by two subjects: history and science. Now, I know some might say that I ought to write “fantasy” instad of “history,” but in my experience there is very little difference between them. History and fantasy are very much about world-building, though of course the world built in the study of history is the one we live in, and not some made-up imaginary one. And is not history a fantasy in its own way, created, as the cliche goes, to be something the winners want it to be? Fantasy is about history as well, because no proper imaginary world can really exist without having a great deal of lore (another word for history) to support it. Even magic, another hallmark of fantasy, needs to have its whys and wherefores explained, after all, and lore (or history) does this admirably.
So: what happens when one puts history and science together in a blender and hits the “frappe” button? There are many possible answers to that, but my current favorite response is “steampunk.” Now, to be fair, there are many, many ways to define this genre, each one fluid enough to fit itself to the tastes of a multitude of readers, and I truly do not want to go into that. It is far easier to simply type the word “steampunk” into an image search on Google and look at the results, because the genre is one that is easily defined by its aesthetic. Once one has a grasp of that, then it is possible to go into the subgenres such as dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, et cetera (though not cyberpunk; that’s a whole other beast entirely).
My first experience of this genre was with Scott Westerfeld’s excellent young adult series, titled The Leviathan Trilogy, set in an alternate version of World War I. Illustrated by artist Keith Thompson, and populated by characters that were easy to love (the female characters, in particular), it was easy to fall head-over-heels in love with the story, and, in consequence, with the genre. Thompson’s art, in particular, helped that interest along, since as I said earlier, steampunk is a genre heavily defined by the way it looks.
A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to explore the genre a bit more thoroughly, and picked up a few books that were very definitely classified as steampunk. I initially tried Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, but did not enjoy it that much. And then I found Phoenix Rising, the first book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences series, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, and this time, enjoyed the ride.
Phoenix Rising is set in Victorian London, which is the most common setting for steampunk stories, and begins in a very explosive way, to say the least. Wellington Books, an Archivist (not a librarian) for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences, has been captured by the House of Usher, and is subsequently rescued by Eliza Braun, a field agent for the aforementioned Ministry. Using significant quantities of dynamite, gunpowder, and bullets, Eliza manages to get Books out of the sticky situation he has found himself in, and gets him back to London mostly unharmed. Unfortunately, Eliza’s destructive actions have brought down the disapproval of Doctor Sound, the head of the Ministry, upon her, and she is demoted (so she likes to think) to the status of assistant to none other than Books himself, to teach her a lesson about responsibility and circumspection before taking action.
But demotion is where the action begins, because it is while she is in the Archives that Eliza discovers the Ministry’s cache of unsolved cases, including one involving her former partner, Harry Thorne. With Books as her initially reluctant partner, she attempts to solve, once and for all, the case that eluded her and her former partner, and uncovers a secret society bent on promulgating its own ideals in an attempt to reshape the British Empire in its own twisted image.
The very first thing that I liked about this novel was the role reversal, as it were. Usually, when looking at partnership dynamics between a male and female duo, it is the male half of the duo who is more action-oriented, while the female acts as support. In Phoenix Rising, this dynamic is reversed: Books is definitely not action-oriented (and in fact has a deep-seated aversion to guns) whereas Braun is most assuredly action-oriented. When Braun is sent to work with Books it is she who encourages Books to step out of his safe zone to work with her.
Their partnership does not begin very smoothly, though. Braun’s prejudice about Books’ job gets in the way, as does Books’ own prejudice about Braun’s less than ladylike attitude. This, however, should come as no surprise to any reader with an interest in Victorian London, as this very stratified society in terms of gender and class is one of the hallmarks of that specific place and period. However one type, in particular, stands out for me: the prejudice that British citizens born in Britain itself have against those born in the colonies. Braun is from New Zealand, and her colleague Bruce Campbell is from Australia, and both have had to get used to those who were born and bred in London sneering down their noses at them. This is an angle I had not read about before, even in the historical novels I’ve read set in the very same period, so it was a wonderful reminder that in the Victorian period, Britain was not just about the British Isles; it was actually a sprawling empire with territories in every hemisphere.
I was also very pleased to find that, as I continued to read the novel, I found myself really liking Books and Braun and the dynamic of their partnership. They work incredibly well together, but stand well enough on their own, neither needing the other as a metaphorical crutch in order to stand out from the crowd. Since I always love strong, get-up-and-get-’em female characters, it was pretty easy to love Braun right from the beginning, but though Books is not as action-oriented as Braun, and is really rather a stuffy pom (to borrow terminology from the novel), he becomes quite likable by the time the reader sees him in his natural element: the Archives – something which, thankfully, happens early in the novel. He balances Braun out in such a wonderful way that, though I found the plot itself to be uninteresting at times, I was quite happy to just read about Braun and Books getting into trouble, and getting out of it, in their own unique way.
Since this is a steampunk novel, and one of the defining features of a steampunk novel is the showcase of advanced steam-powered technology, there is most assuredly a great deal of that on display. I rather like to think that steampunk novels ought to all be illustrated like The Leviathan Trilogy, but Phoenix Rising does a good-enough job without any illustrations. I especially liked Books’ computer (or analytical machine, as it’s called in the novel), which can play music, make tea, and search the archives at the same time. And then there is the mechanical bar that Braun encounters at a pub in the middle portion of the novel, which can pull a perfect ale each time, every time. Also notable were the weapons Braun made use of – in particular, a mechanical arm that she takes with her to the aforementioned pub and then uses on a group of assassins.
There are other similar touches, of course, scattered all across the novel, and all of them seem to fit neatly into this version of Victorian London Ballantine and Morris have created. Steampunk is written well when the reader can be convinced, if only for the duration of the novel, that everything being proposed in the novel is possible, and Phoenix Rising does a pretty good job of being convincing.
To be fair, the novel does have a few flaws. Sometimes the plot was uninteresting and lost a bit of its momentum, and some of the villains could have been a bit more interesting, and not just the standard mad scientist. These flaws are admittedly rather minor, but they did take a bit of the shine off a novel that would otherwise have had me jumping around and squealing like a fangirl like The Lies of Locke Lamora did. There was also a lack of some truly witty, quotable repartee, which is a pity since I could well imagine Books and Braun trading interesting insults (at the very least) with each other.
Overall, however, Phoenix Rising is not at all a bad start to a series, nor is it a bad example of the steampunk genre. It might be a bit at the deep end of the pool, so to speak, so it’s not really the best introduction. Best to read The Leviathan Trilogy first, and then read this one. For anyone who has already been introduced to the steampunk genre, and is either looking for a new read or something to change their minds about it, then this is a great novel to get back on track.