Friday, July 17, 2015

Steampunk and Gaslight in the 21st Century

kw: book reviews, science fiction, science fantasy, mysteries, cryogenics

From a distance, one simply sees a misshapen, though symmetric, skull. Once the book is in hand, the details resolve into a pair of men in tall hats flanking a pair of trees, a row of fenced tombstones, and a small, solitary female figure in the background. This cover art, coupled with the placement of Unseemly Science by Rod Duncan in the "Sci-Fi/Fantasy" shelving, promised a thorough mix of genres, and indeed, it proved a delightful mix.

Another detail in the cover art is more subtle. Upon a lengthy look, the scene is found to be snowy, with mountain shadows behind. The author's writing is similarly subtle. It took a good while for me to realize that the ice itself was the core around which the mystery resolved. Yet if I reveal more than that, it will be an "unseemly spoiler".

The milieu is of more immediate interest. The book is set in an early 21st Century England with a distinctly 19th Century flavor. Armistice in 1819 after a civil war has split the country along a line through the Midlands that divides Leicester into North and South halves. To the south is Kingdom, centered on London, and to the north is a Republic, centered on Carlisle. The former British Empire is now popularly called the Gas-Lit Empire. Most nations of the world have invested great power in the International Patent Office.

Unlike the familiar patent authorities of modern nations, which exist to facilitate technology, the Patent Office enforces the Great Accord, which primarily limits technology to innovations that can be shown to "protect and insure the wellbeing of the common man." One area considered practically exempt from their oversight is medical innovation, based on the risky notion that any medical advance must be beneficial. I'd guess they forgot Dr. Mengele.

The protagonist is Elizabeth Barnabus, a fugitive from the Kingdom living in the Republic. Her backstory is told in a former book by Duncan, The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter. Upon becoming pubescent and lovely, she'd been "acquired" by a certain nobleman as a plaything (mistress), but escaped and ran northward. She lives by her wits, a kind of female Sherlock Holmes, aided by her skills in disguise. Being tall and less shapely than one might expect, she is adept at taking on a male persona and doing business as her brother when a man's work is needed. Her "brother" has been asked to look into apparent theft of ice, which is produced in large amounts in the Welsh mountains by poor families of ice farmers, and transported southward where it is kept frozen by large, inefficient cooling machinery.

Chapters in this book are headed by quotes from two as-yet unwritten books, The Bullet-Catcher's Handbook and From Revolution. The latter is stated in a glossary as a mix of writings reaching back to the Federalist Papers. I am intrigued by the titling of carnival illusionists as bullet-catchers. Having seen on a Mythbusters episode that catching a bullet with one's teeth is quite impossible, no matter how much powder you remove from the shell, I understand that the carnival illusion is one of the most skillful.

Male writers cannot totally pull off writing in a female voice. Mr. Duncan does as well as any I've read, but the very familial sense I had reading it indicated that the character of Ms Barnabus is more male-like than a female writer would have made her. I suppose the author might protest that her frequent forays into a male world, disguised as a man, make her rather mannish in general. Perhaps. She is, nonetheless, a very engaging doubly-secret detective; doubly so in that she must do her work in secret, females being forbidden from doing business in the Republic.

Dramatic tension is amplified when the Republican government takes up a bill that would enact an extradition treaty with the Kingdom. Though the Republic has tolerated numerous fugitives from the Kingdom, "proper folk" (meaning mainly those with "jobs" few of us would call "gainful employment") look askance at such immigrants, and they intend to legislate them out of existence. Most will be forcibly returned to the Kingdom, finding themselves on a rapid course to the tight end of a noose. The author has done a delightful job of rendering the above ingredients into a gripping tale of multiple betrayals and surprising heroics.

I'm in the process of scaring up a copy of the earlier book. This one ends with sufficient closure that, while one knows the author plans another volume (or more), the book is a unit unto itself. One thing is clear. If she can, Ms Barnabus means to bring about the downfall of the Patent Office. My wager'd be on that being the subject of a successor volume.

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