My rating: Beach read that I might read again (3.5/4)
In this steampunk novel, Elizabeth Barnabus lives on her own in the restrictive, Calvinist-esque society of the Anglo-Scottish Republic. For propriety’s sake, and to facilitate her private eye investigations, she tells everyone she lives with her brother, a private investigator. In truth, as the daughter of one of the greatest illusionists of her time, she disguises herself as her brother as she conducts her work, when she pays her rent, and whenever he is required to assuage her neighbors’ curiosity or concern. This book encompasses one of her investigations, involving the Duke and Duchess of Bletchley, from Elizabeth’s home country – which Elizabeth fled in exile after a nobleman decided he wanted her, impoverished her family, and bought up all their debts so he could claim her as payment. The Duchess of Bletchley asks Elizabeth to find her missing brother, who escaped punishment for using forbidden (un-patented) technology. While Elizabeth agrees to take on the case, the danger that comes with it give her pause. Along the way, she falls in with circus performers, evades pursuit by the Patent Office (tasked with the regulation and prohibition of new, un-patented technologies), and disguises herself as many different characters.
The world was incredibly complex and unique, but not really my kind of place. With a mix of Calvinist/Puritan culture and a more open, capitalist society that are loosely connected as member states of the same empire, the setting felt a bit weird. Mostly, I found the time frame confusing. While the descriptions seemed to place it in the more familiar alternate Victorian setting, the history seemed to place it much later. Perhaps the world had been altered too much for me to make sense of it. But there were planes, and steamcoaches, and wagons – and it was difficult for me to reconcile all of those. At one point, I imagined the society to be either Victorian or 16th century, and then I confused it with the 20th century (where the planes come in). The complexity of the world-building made the world seem a bit squashed into the page limit. All the same, it was a refreshing change from the overtly Victorian-based period so common in steampunk.
I enjoyed the interactions between the characters, and the barest hints at a romance. There are quite a few interesting supporting characters – including the timid circus boy, the cunning fortune teller, the naive young neighbor in love with an exciting phantom man, and some unsavory bad guys: the gambling, greedy rent collector, one or two Patent Office agents, and several sly circus troupe members. The romance is predictable, but how it will develop is still unknown. The naive young neighbor, who has a crush on Elizabeth’s nonexistent brother, stands out as an endearing character. Melodramatic, loyal, and clever, she shines when she is given an opportunity to act outside of the narrow bounds allowed her by society. No character is drawn entirely in white or black – each has his or her kind and cruel moments, except for the despicable duke who ruined Elizabeth’s life. The overly curious neighbor who is just dying to catch Elizabeth unawares, to meet her nocturnal brother, becomes a very supportive neighbor when disaster strikes.
The denouement completely surprised, even while it fit the story and plot. I like an undetected plot twist, and this one slipped right by. Aside from that, there’s tons of action, danger, suspense, and mystery – all very engaging, and kept me eagerly reading to find out what trouble Elizabeth would get herself into (and out of) next.
The sly tricks and sleights of hand that Elizabeth uses to stay out of trouble are thrilling and suspenseful – she very nearly doesn’t escape several times. What I especially enjoyed about Elizabeth is her resourcefulness and resilience. Not only has she made a new life for herself, on her own and in a strange country, as a teenager, but she uses her quick wits, daring, and knowledge of the “bullet-catcher’s” (illusionist’s) art to get her out of tight corners. And she almost always rescues herself, too. The descriptions of her disguises, of how she turns her appearance into that of a man, are thorough and well thought out – she doesn’t just put on different clothes, she puts on pieces of different clothes, and assumes a different attitude. The details made her transformations convincing. Overall, she’s really a great strong heroine to read.
The only thing that doesn’t really ring true is her love for the Kingdom, its brightness, its emotions, its gaudiness. Mostly she seems to be living to pay her rent and buy her tea, and to investigate the missing person case. She thinks a lot about the circumstances that led her to the disappointing, gloomy, and gray society of the Republic, but the Kingdom pales in comparison to the evocation of atmosphere in the Republic. The plot felt more about Elizabeth keeping her head above water than about her exile. Similarly, I’m not sure anything felt very real to me in this novel, as if I were just skimming the surface of the world and the characters, without really getting a good glimpse at what lay beneath. The characters, and the world, seemed distant.
While the main plot elements all wrap up satisfactorily, the glossary hints at more adventures for Elizabeth Barnabus. I may not rush out to buy it in stores, or put my name on a waiting list at the library, but I will probably pick it up. I would recommend this one for fans of steampunk, alternate historical fiction, and science fiction.
*Advance e-copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Sarah Tolerance is another swashbuckling private investigator who sometimes dresses like a man to conduct her work. Set in a slightly altered Regency England, Point of Honour is the first in a trilogy about this intrepid, resourceful “fallen woman,” who has made her own way in life and enjoys doing it. With just a dash of potential romance in the first two novels, this book will suit readers who like books with private investigators, alternate historical settings, and strong female protagonists, but who aren’t that keen on romance. Although I highly recommend it even for readers who do like romance!
With forbidden magic, instead of forbidden technology, but the same governmental stranglehold on the people, and the severe restrictions on new technologies, A Study in Silks has a similar feel. Neither heroine fits into the world in which she lives, in part because each has grown up in a circus environment. If you like a little more romance and a dash of magic in your steampunk, you should enjoy this one. You can find out more in the review I wrote.