The first Gideon Smith novel, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was one of my favourites of last year – a breakneck potboiler of steampunk and Victoriana that whipped the small-town hero up into a world of airships and vampires on the streets of Whitby, London and, eventually, Egypt. I pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could, and then completely forgot about it; it’s always gratifying when a book you had not idea was coming out pops through your door. Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon takes our hero off to the American West – in Barnett’s world the site of a tense rivalry between the Japanese and the British, with the lawless stronghold of Steamtown perched in the middle. He’s questing after the brass dragon of the title, who’s been abducted alongside Maria, the mechanical object of his affections.
This is an entirely different beast of a novel to Mechanical Girl, it has to be said. The first book raced through at an incredible speed, from set-piece to set-piece, whereas Brass Dragon is far more stately in pace, taking time to build a more complex world (which is entirely necessary as Barnett’s alt-history here is a marked step away from the broad strokes necessary to paint gothic London). There are glimmers of the first book’s gleeful right-turns, such as the sudden diversion into a Godzilla riff at the end, but for the most part this seems to be a concerted effort to weave a wider, more detailed tapestry. There’s a multitude of character strands, with several overlapping semi-mythical Spanish heroes popping up in guises all over the place (occasionally a touch confusing, but it works itself out) and what seems like a far more focussed choice to introduce a wider political and historical scope to the book.
That being said, it’s still got its share of set-pieces, and its here that Brass Dragon shines, because the action is several leaps ahead of the first novel, assured and thrilling. It’s also a chance for the supporting characters to step up and take deserved centre stage, with Bent getting the best lines, Rowena going around generally being quite awesome, and Louis Cockayne rehabilitated into Han Solo. If anything, it suffers from the same problem as the first novel in that Gideon is by far the least dynamic and Maria barely exists in the narrative.
Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one still certainly recommended to fans of the steampunk genre. It doesn’t quite rank up there with the first novel for me, but I’ll hold up my hands and admit that that’s probably far more to do with personal feelings on the choice of subject (I generally dislike the western genre, whereas I’m particularly enamoured with daft Victoriana) than anything intrinsic in the book itself. And its certainly a million miles from a disappointment, which is always the worry with a sequel to a much loved book.