Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review: 'Phoenix Rising'

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry 
of Peculiar Occurrences Novel
By Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris
Harper Voyager

Detail of cover

     In an earlier post, I mentioned that while I generally don't like trilogies, I don't mind series in which the same characters recur in stand-alone novels where there are few, if any, cliffhangers between volumes. The Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe stories are classic examples, as is Ben Aaronovitch's ongoing Peter Grant series. Now I can add Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris' Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, which is sort of a Victorian-era X-Files. Two books have been published so far.
     I've just read the first, "Phoenix Rising," an adventure featuring the odd couple team of field agent Eliza Braun and archivist Wellington Books. They book tells the story in both their (third person) voices, alternating chapters,with a few Interludes along the way.
     The book opens with Books a prisoner in the Antarctic base of a terrorist/criminal organization called the House of Usher. He is rescued by Braun, who was supposed to terminate him lest the knowledge in his head fall into the criminals' hands. Her punishment for this mercy is to be reassigned to the archives with Books, who doesn't know his own country preferred him dead.
     There are hints of Books' past -- House of Usher badly wants him for some reason; his father tried to instill in him a disdain for the lower classes, foreigners and women -- and Braun's -- she's from New Zealand, has had near romantic entanglements with former partners and fellow agents -- and there are intrigues within the Ministry (which is apparently not beloved of the Queen) and involving their boss, Dr. Sound and a mysterious locked room within the Archives.
     The plot of "Phoenix" involves an unsolved case which drove Braun's former partner mad and which the Ministry is unable and/or unwilling to solve. From her purgatory of the Archives, Braun resolves to solve it, and drags Books along.
     The book is also squarely within the steampunk genre, without any supernatural aspect as of yet.
     The series has its own website/blog, wherein I discovered a recipe for gingernuts -- a type of ginger cookie beloved of a couple of characters in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" -- which I confess was the final push I needed to decide to buy and read the book.

German cover of Phoenix Rising

      (As an aside, this brings me to a possible anachronism in the book: Braun describes someone's obsession as "his great white whale," a reference to Melville's "Moby Dick." While Melville's book  had certainly been published before the events of the book, it was a resounding flop until it was rediscovered in the early 20th century. In England, it was published in a heavily edited edition, omitting even the epilogue, and had an even worse reputation. So was the expression "great white whale" in use at the time of the book? Or is this an example of a change brought about by the steampunk technology? If the latter, I'm impressed by Ballantine and Morris' subtlety, and hope to learn more about Melville's far happier later career in this alternate timeline ... but I suspect it was sloppiness. That's not a reason to give the book a thumbs-down, however.
     (Another possible anachronism is Braun's makeup compact with mirror, a ubiquitous item in a modern woman's purse, but was it a part of a Victorian woman's? Yes, she's a secret agent with all sorts of advanced equipment, but she describes the compact as something every woman carries. Maybe it was in our world, but I have my doubts.)
     The characters are entertaining, the world is intriguing and the plot resolves itself in a more than satisfactory manner, while laying the groundwork for future books. The first of these, The Janus Affair, is out now, and I will probably read it, too.  


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