Why did no one tell me this book existed until now????!!!!111
Seriously, it took a careful browsing of the library’s New Paperbacks section to discover the second and third books in this series. A quick hop to the nearby computer (which I think is running some kind of locked-down Ubuntu if the font anti-aliasing is anything to go by) to check the library’s catalogue, and sure enough, Phoenix Rising was in the stacks of that branch. Have I mentioned how much I love my library?
A quick glance at the description for these books was enough to convince me that I must read them all and now. That’s not to say I was convinced I would love them, or even that I loved Phoenix Rising all that much. It actually isn’t very impressive. Nevertheless, I could tell on sight that this was the steampunky equivalent of a beach read: light and frothy and satisfying.
Let’s start with the title. I hate titles of the form x Rising. I think they’re stupid. I have no rational argument for this bias; it’s just the way I feel, and you are welcome to disagree with me on it (but I will cut you).
Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are an unlikely pair of agents for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, thrust together by chance and the whims of the ministry’s mysterious director, Doctor Sound. I’ll let you guess which one is the brains and which is the … er … brawn. They end up investigating the Phoenix Society, the rumblings of which are getting louder (hence the title). Oh, and the society is also responsible for driving Eliza’s former partner into the clutches of Bedlam.
Ballantine and Morris rely a great deal on the odd couple pairing of Books and Braun. So your mileage of the book’s humour will rest largely on that. It didn’t do much for me, mostly because they don’t do anything new with the trope. Wellington seems to get the share of character development while we learn comparatively less about Eliza. I will, grudgingly, admit that in the broad strokes the pairing works. Just.
What works a lot better for me is the alternative steampunk London in which Phoenix Rising takes place. Ballantine and Morris do a great job at dropping subtle reminders that this is a different London from the one we’re used to. Wellington has somehow constructed Babbage’s analytical engine for himself (though that seems to be a one-time thing). Complicated gramophones and self-service bars exist. Oh, yeah, and there are obviously airships (TVTropes). (Sidenote: I’d love to see a steampunk alternative history that intentionally and viciously doesn’t invoke the airship trope. Like, just totally slaughters any notion that even in a steampunk world airship travel might be viable.) While not subtle, these technological references are presented as normal, everyday parts of life in this alternative world (with the exception of the Gatling-equipped killer robots, obviously).
The emphasis on technology and its role in the plans of the antagonists highlights how Phoenix Rising straddles the steampunk–urban fantasy divide. Technically it falls into the DMZ of speculative fiction, what I like to call agnostic fantasy. There are plenty of mentions of stories or myths about magical artifacts but no actual magic on page. So it remains to be seen whether magic is real in this world or merely very advanced, steam-powered science. On the other hand, there is a shadowy Big Bad behind the Phoenix Society, the House of Usher. (And, you know, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it turns out to be a sentient house.)
Books and Braun’s bickering might be formulaic, but it gives Ballantine and Morris a way to spin out an already short book for a few more hundred pages. The story doesn’t really pick up until our intrepid duo go undercover to infiltrate the Phoenix Society. Oh, there’s also some kind of subplot involving a mole in the Ministry. It doesn’t go anywhere, which suggests it’s more of a series arc—and it’s good to know, at least, that Ballantine and Morris have some kind of overall vision for the series.
As I said above, I knew before I read it that Phoenix Rising would be light entertainment. Nothing about the book changed my mind on that score. It’s good steampunk in an alternative world.