I discovered this on my library’s new paperbacks shelf last week and literally squealed aloud. I have a warped perspective of this series’ publication structure because I’ve read the first three books in short succession to get caught up, so I had forgotten The Diamond Conspiracy was coming out so “soon” after I read Dawn’s Early Light.
A lot was riding on this book. With the disavowal of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences at the end of the previous book, the series was forging ahead into brand new and exciting territory. Plus, Books and Braun have now consummated their relationship. I was watching carefully how Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris handle these two aspects of what, so far, has been a delightful and engaging series.
Let’s talk about Books and Braun. These people are my favourites. They’re just so much fun. And it has been a while since I discovered a series with a buddy-cop pair of protagonists like this. As much as I like the noir pastiche urban fantasy environment with a lone protagonist partnered only with a large suitcase full of angst, buddy cop stuff is a nice change. And Ballantine and Morris (I am really tempted to shorten that to “BM,” but I don’t think it would be appropriate) manage to make Books and Braun funny even while they deal with deadly serious issues.
I like the way their relationship develops and deepens in this book. Ballantine and Morris don’t introduce an unnecessary vexation, like triangle owing to an old lover or a rival love interest. Books and Braun have some disagreements, like real people would, even as they progress through that head-over-heels, let’s-have-sex-everywhere phase of courtship. The book opens with them bonding over something they can take shared interest in—gadgets (for Books) that make things go boom (for Braun). And we see them having to negotiate the waters of where they might not see eye-to-eye, with both Books and Braun respecting and compromising for each other.
It’s like Ballantine and Morris wanted to portray a healthy relationship between two enthusiastic and consenting adults instead of a creepy, unequal and potentially abusive relationship. What’s up with that?
Of course, Books and Braun face more challenges that might eventually throw kinks—um, I mean, difficulties—into their relationship. Doctor Sound drops a doozy on them in this book, and basically implies that he wants them to be his successors in the event he ever actually kicks the bucket. It will be interesting to see how they survive as a couple while confronting the stress of such a position—not to mention the last-minute revelation about Books’ childhood and origins!
As far as Doctor Sound’s announcement goes, it’s a bold gamechanger for this series. Arguably it’s bolder than the disavowal of the Ministry. Ballantine and Morris demolish any prospect that we could entertain expectations that this is just a steampunk series set in Victorian England. No, now we have H.G. Wells–level of science-fictional technology elevating the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences into a kind of steampunk(ier) version of Warehouse 13. And you know what? I’m down with that. I really am. I love how Ballantine and Morris keep pushing the envelope in all directions (even fourth-dimensional ones).
Where The Diamond Conspiracy lets me down is that pesky third act, where Books and Braun have to save Queen Victoria from herself (and Dr. Jekyll). What starts as a bizarre but acceptable plan falls to tatters at first contact with the enemy—as it really should. But the resulting chaos doesn’t translate well to page. It’s difficult to follow and, in some cases, a little hard to believe. I get the sense that Ballantine and Morris are trying to go for a larger-than-life atmosphere. Yet the succeed mostly in demonstrating that Books and Braun are at their best on a more personal level. The bigger, larger-er than life things get, the harder it is to see them excel in all those areas of expertise.
Still, that goes far from making this book a disappointment. Rather, I’d categorize this book as being a bridge between the start of this series and its second act: the Ministry is back, albeit in a different way; Books and Braun are together; but now Books has a new mystery to investigate that links his father to villains old and new.
It’s clear this series has plenty of life left in it. I am all too glad of that: I want more Books and Braun! Let’s keep this steampunk buddy cop thing going for as long as we can.