Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Phoenix Rising

by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris


If James Bond wore a corset and drank Earl Grey it might be something like the adventures in Phoenix Rising. Eliza Braun is a Victorian hard woman fond of blowing things up and wielding her ornate pounamu pistols. But at the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences where she works she's seen as a loose cannon. After she makes a daring but destructive rescue from an Antarctic base she's demoted to the Ministry's archives to learn some lessons in discipline and the value of keeping the top-secret organisation secret.

Wellington Books is the Ministry's archivist, and he likes nothing better than a spot of quiet cataloguing with the help of his steam-powered difference engine. Books and Braun live up to their rather obvious names and immediately clash. Books thinks Eliza is unladylike and rash, whilst she thinks he's stuffy and dull.

Eliza is chafing at the bit in the archives, eager to get out and back into the field. Her former partner Harry is languishing in Bedlam, and she wants to know what drove him mad. But in the deep, dark recesses of the archives Books and Braun discover forgotten cases waiting for them. They're not trusted by the Ministry to go out and investigate cases any more, and they're not supposed to act on their own initiative. But when they catch wind of a series of murders and a secret organisation the temptation to break the rules is strong. Moreover, Eliza wants to punish whoever left Harry in the state he is in. They'll be risking their lives and their jobs if they want to follow the trail that leads them to the people responsible for the killings, though.

Phoenix Rising is steampunk with all the trimmings and cute little brass gears. There are steam-powered computers and other gadgets and inventions with the capabilities of 21st century technology, so the characters are barely constrained at all by the limitations of the era. Eliza herself is even more incongruous. She's a very modern woman, almost too modern with her total disregard for Victorian dress codes and the expectations of female behaviour at the time. She wears the trousers and leaves the Suffragettes trailing in her super-liberated wake.

This novel crams in all kinds of tea-drinking, bowler-hatted, Empire-building stereotypes of late 19th century Britain. The characters talk like a glossary of Victorian idiom, and there's so much of this kind of speech it occasionally sounds quite clunky. Eliza isn't even English, she's actually from New Zealand, but nevertheless she manages to come out with all of the stock phrases that common East Enders or posh toffs would come out with. No excuse to say "Tosh!" or "By Jove!" is passed up.

The book is heavy with its steampunk theme, but it's also pretty light reading. The bodycount is ridiculously high and there are plenty of very cinematic passages that get the blood pumping. I don't think I can describe it correctly as high octane (maybe high coal?), but there's always a lot of action.

Books and Braun's relationship veers towards the transparent. Books is like a cute nerd stranded out of his era, with something of a Clarke Kent-style charm to him. Eliza is almost too brazen and overconfident. However the pair did grow on me as the story progressed and their characters began to emerge and become more nuanced. There's a fair amount of sexual tension going on, and even if it's clear as day where it will lead it still works.

The two agents make light-hearted banter whilst chasing down evil villains and mad scientists and getting in and out of scrapes in immaculate period style. It's anachronistic and absurd, but Phoenix Rising has a sweet ending and getting to it is gleeful fun.

1st April 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books


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Review © Ros Jackson