Friday, May 11, 2012

Review of Phoenix Rising: Book one of A Ministry of Peculiar Occurences by Pip Ballentine & Tee Morris

Miss Eliza Braun first meets archivist Wellington Books when she saves him from captivity.  Like all missions involving Braun, she does not completely follow orders, and leaves behind a trail of destruction.  Her punishment is to be sent down to the archives to assist Books with cataloging the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences case files. For someone who loves to be out in the field, chasing down bad guys, this is punishment.  Books for his part is not happy to have someone meddling with his case files.

It isn't long before he catches Eliza investigating the last case that her former partner worked on. Books knows that he should not get involved and that he should return to his much loved archives, but he gets drawn into the intrigue when he discovers that an ancient secret society is behind several unexplained deaths.  Eliza loaded with guns, and a bullet proof corset urges Books on as they go undercover in an attempt to reveal the depths of the depravity.

This book is easily one of the best steampunk novels that I have ever read. It had a blindingly quick pace, yet one never feels as though the story is being rushed.  The relationship between Eliza and Books grows from distrust to true partnership with a hint of a romance, leaving the reader wanting more of the illustrious pair.  The banter between them flows between delightful snark, and true concern.  It is impossible not to adore either Eliza or Books, or hope that Eliza is successful in corrupting the moral fortitude of her partner.

Eliza is from New Zealand, and being in London she is often seen as a backward colonial.  She uses this to her advantage to shock those around her.  Books is haunted by the loss of his mother and his overbearing father.  The archives is where he has retreated from the life that he was born to.  In this case, he must battle the specter of his past, while not losing sight of who he is.

The main site of interrogation in this book is class and to some degree sexism.  The ministry of seven are a group of street urchins within Eliza's fold who she uses to collect intelligence through things like breaking and entering, as well as pickpocketing.  These children are dirty and hungry, yet they are clearly cast as intelligence.  This is a good thing, as often people of lower classes are constructed as being devoid of intelligence.  The lower classes are constructed in this book as having a true sense of integrity and a joy of living.  They aren't pretentious like the rich.

The women in this book are strong and capable.  Eliza is a person of action and this contrasts against Books who is retiring.  Though she saves him at the beginning of the book, it is Books who saves her at the end.  I am not sure that I liked this turn of events; however, I will acknowledge that this was a necessary happenstance for Books to evolve.  Eliza is a touch spunky, as she jumps into situations without thinking them through, and it is left for the more methodical Books to plan.  He often sees the connections that she misses, because of her tendency to barrel in. Even when a woman was cast as a victim, as such was the case with Lady Devane, she got justice by shooting and killing her husband Lord Bartholomew Devane.  Despite having the story set in Queen Victoria's England, there were no shrinking violets.

If I have one complaint about this story it would be its homogeneity.  The characters were all straight, White, and able bodied.  This is actually quite common in the steam punk genre, but it is not now, or ever will be acceptable.  People of colour and the GLBT community did not suddenly become a factor in society in the modern era.  The only references we got to people of colour appeared when Eliza would make references to foreign lands, which in this case exoticized them and cast them as "other".  The GLBT community were not referenced at all.

Despite its obvious flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the second installment.  There is still a mystery afoot, and someone clearly means to bring an end to the Ministry.  We still don't know what is in the secret compartment kept by Director Sound, and it is clear from her response that Eliza is not quite done with the old case files.  Where this next mystery will take  Eliza and Books I cannot help but wonder -- but I do know that wherever it leads -- it will be delightfully funny and an excellent read. In short, rush out and buy this book and then one for a friend.  They will thank you I promise.