Encapsulate the book in one sentence? “Lady detective pretends to be boy detective in steampunk Leicester.” Intriguing, tell me more. In a steampunk alt-history England divided between the Republic in the North and the Kingdom in the South by a line that bisects Leicester, Elizabeth Barnabus makes her living as a private detective, much aided by the invention of her fictional twin brother whose role she frequently plays to grant her freedoms. Her case, searching for a missing aristocrat who has fled with a machine rumoured to be capable of taking down the whole Gas Lit Empire, leads her to venture back into the Kingdom (from which her tragic personal history exiles her), via a sinister carnival… Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read…? Personal choice. I’ve got an entire brace of steampunk novels to read at the opening of the year (call it research for my percolating Clockwork Cairo anthology.) Plus, Rod Duncan is a lecturer in Creative Writing at my old university (sadly only joining the faculty the year after I left), and when I attended their independent book festival last year, I dearly wanted to go see his event on steampunk but couldn’t, as I was scheduled to speak opposite it at a different event. So it seemed about time I read the book… What genre would you say it is? It’s somewhere between steampunk and alt-history. It’s a fairly serious entry into those genres (not weighty pretentious steampunk, but not daft shenanigans steampunk either) and combines that with pulp detective adventure and an almost spy-thriller vibe. And although the finale is London-set, it’s refreshingly none London-centric; it’s a personal joy to have Leicester rendered steampunk. There is not nearly enough Leicester in literature, I’ve decided. Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Yes! Devoured over a few days. I really did enjoy it; it’s a great start to a series that stands well alone but hints of great things to come from a continuing series. The world-building is interesting, and nimbly assembled without veering into infodump, but I think the key to the success of the book is in the heroine Elizabeth Barnabus, who is, basically, ace. She’s a beautifully rounded character in that she is neither kick-ass-iron-women-cliche nor trembly-corsets-and-lace, but is both capable and vulnerable.
While the actual detectivating at hand is fairly straightforward in terms of her pursuit of her quarry, this isn’t really a book that motors on clues or mystery. It’s actually running on a pretty streamlined thriller motor, and as the net of the story closes in towards the end, with various forces on Elizabeth’s tail, the threat is legitimately heart-pounding in the way not many books actually achieve, where you truly feel as if every shadow, street and character is against a hero who cannot possibly evade. (My favourite example of this is Philip Pullman’s Tiger In The Well, and while plenty of books and movies put the pieces in place, they often don’t use them.) What surprises did it hold – if any? I know I’ve just talked about it, but the great female lead. I tend not to expect that from a male writer (which is a harsh and hugely sweeping assumption, I know), plus steampunk does have an occasional tendency to feature busty women in corsets and goggles and not much else. Elizabeth rocks; more like her please. What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? The best sequence in the book is Elizabeth’s escape from the carnival through various forms of trickery and daring. The threat of the carnival is very real, and her escape is sustained and hair-raising. An equally great sequence later on features an attack upon her canal boat, and the subsequent defeat of the sinister Sleepless Man through means of a neat little con and a handful of supportive neighbors, and sequence that is well-executed and very satisfying. Give me a good quote: Illusion was my inheritance, fed to me on my mother’s lap as the drowsy rocking of the caravan and the slow rhythms of iron-shod hooves lulled me. It was a ripe strawberry conjured from the air, or a silver coin caressed from my soft cheek by the touch of a loving hand.
As I grew, I learned that others built lives on stuff they fancied more solid. To them, illusion was a shifting mist they wished to define or dispel. But instead of shunning us, these people were drawn to buy tickets for our shows. At first they might choose seats at the back of the tent, as if embarrassed to be seen in our low company. But night by night fascination would overcome their better judgement until they were sitting on the edge of their seats in the front row. But the harder they clung to that which they thought solid, the further their gaze drifted from the moment of the trick. What do you mean, bad reviews? I love reading bad reviews of books I like. A few complaints from goodreads:
“It’s not steampunk, it’s alt-history!” Everyone knows steampunk isn’t alt-history. Silly author. Must be the airships that confuse things. (Seriously though: steampunk is way more than superficial trappings. I’ll grant that this isn’t heavy on the steampunk paraphernalia, but clockwork and goggles do not necessarily steampunk make. Plus, as a reader/reviewer, it is possible to enjoy a novel for the genre it is, rather than the genre you expected it to be.)
“Long, boring, feminist novel.” Why do you think these three words are equal?
Is it available today? Out now from Angry Robot books. Generally stocked in yer chain bookstores, like. Soundtrack of choice: I listened to a whole bunch of Abney Park and Steam Power Giraffe while I read it, but I’m nominating “Steampunk Telegram” from Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios soundtrack. Miscellaneous thoughts: – The artwork is so goddamn sexy. Book cover porn, for those of us with quaint little designer souls. – Sequel is on its way…