I readily admit to not being very well read in the steampunk subgenre, or very interested for that matter, but there a few things that caught my attention about Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine’s “Phoenix Rising” ($7.99, Harper Voyager).
For one, there was a pretty familiar name on the cover. I was part of fantasy writers’ e-mail list with Morris some years ago and was introduced to his other books “Morevi” and “Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword,” both of which I enjoyed, through that list. The main reason, though, was that it just looked like a fun book. And it is.
Wellington Books, the archivist for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences who prefers his files and organization to action, has been kidnapped and whisked to Antarctica by the secret organization the House of Usher. Field agent Eliza Braun is given the task of quietly eliminating the possibility that Books will reveal the ministry’s secrets. When she sees him, though, she has a change of heart and decides to rescue him instead – very loudly and with lots of dynamite.
As her punishment for disobeying orders, she’s reassigned to the archives, where she will work alongside the prim and proper Books in filing cases and keeping track of related items.
It’s torture for Braun, who longs to be in the field, guns strapped at her side and explosives at the ready. She soon discovers the cold case of her old partner, Harrison Thorne, now in the Bedlam asylum after learning things that he shouldn’t have on his last case, one that involved bodies turning up drained of blood or missing muscle or bone. She decides to pick up the pieces and take on the case herself, and Books gets dragged along for the ride. What they discover is something potentially far more dangerous than the House of Usher, and because their investigation is off the books, they have no choice but to try to deal with it themselves.
Though it’s a steampunk novel, set in the usual alternate Victorian England with all sorts of cool gizmos and gadgets, the focus of “Phoenix Rising” is not on the props and setting, but rather the characters and story. That’s a plus for me.
Granted, Books and Braun is almost a groan-worthy pun, but it’s also quite fitting for the fun and whimsical nature of the story. Though there’s a dire threat to England that our heroes are trying to stop, and there are a few very dark and gritty moments, the tone of the story remains pretty light and airy, reminding me a lot of “The Avengers” (the old TV show about British spies, not the comic) or maybe even a little bit of “Get Smart” (again, the old TV series, not the movie of a few years ago).
Books and Braun are both very likeable characters in different ways, though it takes a long time for the chemistry between them to really develop. That doesn’t happen until almost the end of the book, but it does set up a nice partnership for coming tales. Follow-up “The Janus Affair” was released just last week.
Also be on the lookout for all the references to other great stories throughout the course of the book. There are plenty to spot, and most of them are a little more subtle than the House of Usher. Picking them out is definitely part of the fun of the book.
“Phoenix Rising” gets Morris and Ballantine’s series off to a jolly good start with plenty of action and derring-do. I can’t wait to see what the next book holds for the heroes.