I came across David Barnett by way of his outstanding short story in Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (ed. George Mann), only to discover that his first novel was imminent. What’s that you say–steampunk thriller? Well, if you insist.
I have what probably amounts to something between a passing interest and an excited obsession with steampunk as a genre. I’ve been to Whitby Goth Weekend in full regalia, own an impressive stack of steampunk-flavoured films, several pocket watches and a top hat. However, I’ve never actually dipped my toe in the coppery waters of steampunk, so Gideon Smith is my first turn through the world of airships and clockwork on the page.
Gideon Smith is a small-town fisherman dreaming of the adventures of Lucian Trigger, Adventurer of the Empire. When his father is killed by mysterious creatures, he enlists the help of Bram Stoker, who is holidaying in Whitby, who in turn has discovered, in the graveyard of the Abbey, the monstrous yet beautiful Elizabeth Bathory, widow of Dracula. Meanwhile, Gideon has taken off across the country in search of Lucian Trigger’s help to avenge his father, stealing a mechanical girl from the home of one Professor Einstein. In London, the adventurers reunite and set off across the world to a lost pyramid in Egypt, accompanied by a dodgy journalist, a beautiful air-ship pilot and Trigger himself.
For a good majority of the novel, I had a sense of the author concocting his novel by cheerfully hurling every steampunk trope and turn of the century historical figure into a melting pot and dashing the result across the page in a breathless tumult. I mean this as absolutely no criticism: in fact, it’s what makes the novel so spectacularly entertaining, with a willingness to leave no adventurous stone unturned. From it’s starting point on the Yorkshire Coast (in Whitby! Given my obsessional love of the place, I was haplessly sold from that point on, really) the story never really pauses for a second, jumping gleefully from one character to another, from one set-piece to the next. I was left, for a good bit of the novel, wishing that we could slow down so I could take in far more of the world at play, but it’s the bounding dandyish delight that kept me flying through it, so I shall just have to make do with waiting for the sequel for more. As for the grand cast of characters, they are all, to one degree or another, very well-drawn and entertaining. There’s none that particularly break out of their original steampunk archetypes (except, perhaps, Lucian Trigger when it is revealed that the hero of the empire has especially soggy feet of clay) but they still make for a heady concoction of adventure nonetheless, and oddly, it’s the Mechanical Girl of the title that fades the most easily from memory, given very little time on the page compared to the rest of the ensemble. Of the rest, the double act of Stoker and Bathory, and Trigger and Reed were my personal favourites, but that’s probably largely a matter of taste–there’s something for everyone in the rest.
(On a side note–the episodic structure and large cast would make an excellent mini-series. In fact, reading through, I found myself dividing up episodes in my head, with pre-credits teasers and cliffhangers. It also makes for a great game of fantasy casting. I’d like Mark Benton as Bent and Jaime Murray as Bathory please.)
It is by no means a perfect book: I struggled a little at the beginning settling into the dialogue, I had brief moments of wanting to slap Bent (although they were mostly redeemed at the end after his head injury), and I’m still a little unclear what exactly it was that motivated Reed to be the ultimate-big-bad, which meant I was generally a bit happier along the quest than at the end.
All of those things, in the big picture, irrelevant: overall, a superb, rip-roaring adventure that motors along at an unstoppable pace, with more than its fair share of stand-out moments. It achieves, at its best, something of the atmosphere of slightly daft but knowing atmosphere of derring-do of the Fraser/Wiesz Mummy films, shot through with a healthy dose of airships, automatons and city fog. For a crash course in steampunk novels, highly recommended. Sequel, hurry along please.