Thursday, September 15, 2011
Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurences Novel by Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris [REVIEW].
A few things to note before beginning my preview:
I would like to make it clear that I wouldn’t describe this story as YA; there’s no judgment implied in this statement, only a simple caution since so many steampunk novels can easily fall into multiple age-level categories. This novel contains references to sexual behavior and, although they never become graphic and are mostly suggested, there is the description of an orgy as well as the violent prelude to a near rape. There is also somewhat graphic violence: there are plenty of fist, knife, and gun fights, as well as explosions, and I would advise parental guidance. As in, parents should only hand this book to their teenager if they’ve read it first and are comfortable with their child’s maturity level.
Further: **Warning! Some of my analysis contains spoilers! I tried to be as vague as possible—and there’s a lot going on in the book I never mention—but I’m trying to give fair warning here!**
Phoenix Rising begins with a rescue mission: Wellington Thornhill Books, chief archivist for England’s super-secret Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences (MOPO) has been kidnapped and secreted away in Antarctica by the malevolent villains known as The House of Usher. As the archivist for the ministry, Books knows all the secrets, codes, and anything else that is of importance to the running of a clandestine government organization. His abduction is a significant threat to Britain’s national security, so the head of the ministry, Dr. Sound, immediately dispatches one of his best agents, Eliza D. Braun, to rescue the archivist, dead or alive, with ‘dead’ being the preferred option. But Braun is a woman of action who likes to do things her way, and she doesn’t always do things quietly or exactly as ordered: she manages to rescue Books in rather spectacular fashion because she feels that Books’ kill order is unjust, especially given that no one knows if any security breach has actually happened. In her efforts to Do The Right Thing, however, she fails to conceal that she—and the agency—were involved in Books’ rescue, and now the enemy knows that the agency is aware of their existence. She returns to England with the very scholarly Books knowing that there will be a reckoning.
Once back in England, Dr. Sound decides that, while Braun’s were ultimately correct, her punishment for failure to follow orders is to have to work with Books in the archives. The agents are horrified: Books lives an ordered and quiet existence in the bowels of the ministry, and Braun lost her previous partner under painful circumstances and would rather continue her woman of action lifestyle alone. But just like the mysterious and powerful items that are kept in the archives, Dr. Sound’s plans for Books and Braun are not what they seem, and his motives for pairing these different personalities seems to be a part of a larger scheme than either of the partners can realize.
Braun makes her unhappiness with her new assignment felt as thoroughly as she can: She breaks things, refuses to keep to schedule, and behaves in the most obnoxious manner. Then one day she finds the records for her former partner’s last case, and she can’t help but read the details, many of which she has never seen or heard. Her partner, agent Harrison Thorne, had been investigating a set of particularly vicious murders when he was found, alone and mad, in the slums of London. Although he is still alive, Eliza’s former partner now resides in Bedlam, a babbling shell of a man beyond all medical treatment. Eliza resolves to untangle the mystery without the ministry’s knowledge, but in order to do so she must involve her new, unwanted partner. But Books believes in rules and structure, and he doesn’t want anything to do with this unofficial investigation. That is, until his natural curiosity becomes engaged and he is slowly dragged into a mystery involving assassins, secret societies, and dangerous subterfuge.
I appreciate how stereotypical roles (the man as headstrong, the woman as the more demure voice of reason) are inverted in this story, but this contrast is sometimes to the point of extremes and it takes a little bit for the character development to progress far enough to explain why these characters behave this way. Braun initially seems to be too vampy and flirty, while Books is too uptight and, yes, by the book. As the story progresses, however, the reader discovers that Braun’s outrageous behavior is a weapon as much as her guns or knives; she uses her sexuality both to protect her emotional vulnerability and to incite her enemies into rash behavior. This is a woman who desperately misses her family in New Zealand, in particular a brother with a debilitating mental illness, as well as her Maori mentors, who taught her the skills she uses to survive in her distinctly nontraditional profession. Although the narrative doesn’t fully explain her exile to England, there is additional material available on the author website that sheds some light on how her assignment with MOPO is far more complicated than it seems.
Books, on the other hand, initially seems to be a coward, completely unable to defend himself, and afraid of weapons. The reader learns that just because Books doesn’t want handle knives, guns, or explosives doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. Although he’s more than content to let Braun do the work and think poorly of him, he can, and does, competently handle situations when they arise, while making himself look clumsy and foolish. His extreme reluctance to handle weapons has an explanation, and the reader is provided with enough details to understand there is something more going on. Interestingly, I found I wasn’t frustrated by the lack of a full explanation for his behavior; Books’ anxiety and struggles, as well as those of Braun, seem real and, just as with a real person, we’re not going to learn them all at one time. This added a layer of psychological complexity made this book feel like a part of a larger story, and I’m glad the authors left the reader curious about the London they’ve created. These characters, and the world they live in, are going to develop over time, and I feel like I’ve gotten just enough information to be excited for the next installment of the story.
Reviews I’ve read have commented that the character development felt shallow, but I don’t agree that this is the case. I really liked that Books and Braun come with backstories, and I don’t mind that first half dozen chapters are devoted to developing the relationship between these two very different personalities. Books’ upbringing as the son of a wealthy and demanding landowner appears throughout his interior dialogue, and explains why he feels so strongly compelled to do the work he does, which he sees as meaningful and necessary. Braun’s backstory in New Zealand is a bit more mysterious, but the narrative clearly demonstrates how she has been shaped by the tragedies in her life, and how her work for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences (MOPO) is informed by this past. I had the sense that Books and Braun hadn’t worked through these individual conflicts and, after they are thrown together, it makes sense that the initial partnership is destined to be rocky. But I also feel that after they have that rough, awkward, slow start, they grow to trust each other and a real partnership forms, not the manufactured partnership where two people are just thrown together and told to get something done and they inexplicably do. Although the story hints at the possibility of a future romance between Books and Braun (the reader certainly learns that they are attracted to each other), I’m especially grateful that this element, if it does happen, is further down the road. The friendship and trust comes first.
On another note, I love the intertextual nods in this book: There are references to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” [The House of Usher is the group of villains who originally kidnap Books], Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Baker Street Irregulars [known as the “Mission 7” in this story], Agent Bruce Campbell [a nod to the beloved campy actor], and Barnabas and Angelique Collins [the vampire from Dark Shadows and the witch who turned him into a vampire when he broke their engagement]. All of these references might have made the story feel too derivative, but somehow the narrative pays homage without borrowing too much from these sources of inspiration. It is all done in a witty tongue-in-cheek way that doesn’t seem cheesy. Well, too cheesy, anyway.
The only thing I truly did not like about this book is *sigh* the silly cover. Despite the just plain absurd “sci-fi fan convention fantasy dress” depiction of Eliza Braun on the cover of the book, for the most part she dresses and behaves like a Victorian woman while in public within the story. Yes, her private behavior is a bit outrageous—but this is where the book makes some of its strongest commentaries on gender and class. Although she does, on occasion, wear trousers, these few episodes are always in context: she is going into a situation that requires freedom of movement for combat or escape. This character does not flaunt social convention without specific and reasonable cause, and I appreciate the way in which these authors balance the historical period with the anachronisms. I just wish this were more accurately reflected in the cover art which, sadly, delayed me in actually reading the novel. (I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover!)
[Warning: a rant cometh!] Did I mention the silly cover? It’s silly. As in, Agent Eliza Braun NEVER dresses like this in the book. As in, the written story is fun, engaging, and deserving of a cover that doesn’t scream to the book buyer “I’m Steampunk—buy me, buy me, buy me, meeeeee!!” I know many readers love this cover, but the fictional (and anachronistic) story is placed within real history, and the dress conventions are observed (with a few reasonable exceptions). I would have loved to see Braun depicted as she is described in the book, complete with a knife and one of her beloved pounamu pistols handy. After all, the artist did manage to accomplish this with Books who, sadly, is buried in the background and, therefore, cannot rescue the silly cover. [End rant.]
Even though there are two authors, I feel the writing reflects one voice and I don’t feel like there was resistance or conflict in the way the story is assembled, though I have read other commentaries where this is cited as a specific problem. I am inclined to reread these chapters and revisit my opinion on this point, but I find that I am otherwise pleased with this story and the way it is presented. I enjoyed reading Books and Braun’s adventures, which I found much more entertaining and less frustrating than many books I have read in this genre recently. I would put this book at the top of my recommend pile, which is why I have chosen to give it a five-star rating in my Goodreads account. I keep trying to reassess that rating and change it to a four, but I just can’t. Is the book campy, verging on cheesy? Yes. Does it have a cinematic feel similar to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.? Yes. Was it a fun and entertaining story that kept me engaged from the first page to the last? YES. I can’t wait for Cogs and Corsets: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel in May 2012!!!