Imagine the gritty world of Blade Runner, with all of its fantasy and science and punk vision of society. Now change the setting from a future Los Angeles to Victorian-era England. Now take the replicants and hovercars and weaponry and imagine if they were all powered by pressurized steam instead of electrons.
That’s the way I’ve been able to understand the subgenre of steampunk.
I’ve been curious for some time about the allure of this science-fiction/fantasy subgenre, from buzzing on the internet to the plethora of costumes at events like Dragon*Con. When authors and podcasting giants Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris released their new novel, Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising, I decided to take the plunge into the world of cogs, corsets, and airships.
The story itself is rather simple and linear, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite refreshing for what is essentially a spy novel, complete with action, suspense, and a hearty degree of intellect. Modern espionage tales try to layer double-crosses and intrigue to the point that all those plot twists shroud the very essence of the plot. I never felt that Phoenix Rising was trying to mislead me or confuse me at any point.
The tale focuses on our two heroes, Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, both secret agents in a clandestine branch of the Monarchy that investigates the peculiar, be it the occult or the supernatural. I thought of it as Indiana Jones and the Torchwood Institute combined with Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the James Bond series.
Agent Books is the embodiment of Q, a master of gadgets and gizmos, working as a librarian—pardon me, Archivist—in the bowels of the Ministry. Agent Books doesn’t seek action or adventure because he finds it in the case files he meticulously organizes like clockwork, nine to five, Monday through Friday. He’s prim and proper head-to-toe, armed with a dry wit, and sips a lot of tea. On the surface, Wellington Books is a rather boring guy.
Books is balanced with the spirited Agent Braun from New Zealand, who is the James Bond of the story. Quite honestly, she starts the story as more of a Daniel Craig than a Sean Connery. She goes into action like she’s a one woman wrecking crew, armed to the teeth while wearing a bulletproof corset, and takes no prisoners. She loves her drinks and loves her job, but she’s scarred by the loss of her former partner and her methods get her in trouble with her boss.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Crown’s fate rests in the hands of a renegade and a librarian.
The story revolves around a secret society that threatens the sanctity of the Empire. Eliza has firsthand knowledge of the case because it was what drove her former partner—with whom she was incredibly close—to become a permanent resident in the local asylum. After her scolding for the events of the first chapter, she’s relegated to the less action-packed Archives to learn about the other side of the Ministry from Agent Books. While there, she discovers that the case that claimed her partner is still unsolved and that both she and Books are linked to the happenings. The plot elegantly progresses from there.
The story shifts into high gear from the very beginning and stays there for 400 pages. Tee and Pip swap chapters, bouncing points-of-view from Books to Braun while including very deep character development and growth. The story is also presented in more of the proper British English format, keeping the U in “flavour” and really immersing readers in the Victorian setting. It also keeps the reader in the same mindset as the protagonists, discovering each clue as they do. The only breaks from that formula are the short chapters that expand on the antagonists and their shadowy machinations. These interludes also lay down hints and threads for potential sequels, which are rumored to be in production now.
For my first foray into steampunk, I’m very impressed. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as they arrive.
Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising is available in bookstores everywhere in both physical and digital formats. This review is based on a personally-purchased copy.