Review of The Ghost Rebellion by Pip Ballantine
The Ghost Rebellion
by Pip Ballantine
My library did not have a copy of this, because it has been independently published, so I had to go and buy it like the fan I am. The Ghost Rebellion picks up shortly after The Diamond Conspiracy. Books and Braun are back, along with longtime supporting characters like Bruce Campbell, and some new faces in the principal setting of India. The Ministry managed to foil a plot against the British Empire while technically being disavowed, but their work is far from over. Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris once again deliver a book that is simultaneously action-packed, funny, and intensely interesting.
Books and Braun are on the trail of Dr. Henry Jekyll. In this universe, Jekyll's medical talents have allowed him to develop a serum that is basically steroids+--but with all the terrible side-effects one might remember from Jekyll and Hyde. B&B are hoping to trap Jekyll by following an associate, Dr. Featherstone. Their journey takes them to India, where they get caught up in fighting against the Ghost Rebellion, who have been furnished with technology by Jekyll.
Meanwhile, Agents Campbell and Hill are dispatched to Russia to find a cure for Queen Victoria's terminal ailment. They have to infiltrate a Russian factory held by the House of Usher. Fortunately, they have the assistance of Ryfka, a crack sniper and deaf woman who is ready to put her life on the line to stop Usher's operation in its tracks. They quickly find that they have bitten off more than they can chew. Like most missions with the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, the parameters expand exponentially....
I love the dual A/B plot structure in The Ghost Rebellion. Although Ballantine and Morris have often given us different perspectives in previous books, particularly glimpses at the villains' plotting, Campbell and Hill's story gets a lot of page-time--and that's great. Not that I don't love B&B, of course, but Ballantine and Morris effectively balance these stories so you're kept wanting more of one just as they switch to another.
Neither plot lacks for action. There are gunfights. There are fistfights. There are gun-and-fist-and-holy-hell-is-that-power-armor?-and-hey-who-brought-the-tank-and-fuck-we're-fucked-we're-all-screwed fights. Although I suspect the vast majority of people picking up this book are series fans, a newcomer might enjoy this book for the action alone. Everyone gets a chance to shine in their own way (although if I name names, I'm going into spoiler territory, if you know what I mean).
Books and Braun's relationship continues to advance in interesting ways. This might be one of the book's weaker areas--there isn't as much character development here. There are plenty of callbacks to what we have already learned about Books' past. This includes a fairly intense and kind of disturbing sequence in which Books basically gets a bunch of inexperienced agents killed and then goes off as a result, to bloody ends. Braun, likewise, doesn't see much development. No real new backstory tidbits.
Together, though? I love how they have conversations like adults. They don't tiptoe around issues. They know their lives are weird and perilous--and they always resolve to deal with it together. I think the reason I like Books and Braun so much is that theirs is a relationship that is so healthy. They are totally a relationship of equals, complementing each other in skills and interests but always, always consulting and compromising instead of deferring or manipulating. Books and Braun do not play games. And that is what makes them such a formidable, amazing couple.
The other area in which The Ghost Rebellion is lacking is the eponymous antagonists. I appreciate Ballantine and Morris' effort to once again take us to an exotic location in their steampunk Victorian world. I'm not so chuffed with how it feels like Books and Braun are on the wrong side of the conflicts, here, defending Britain's imperialist interests from people seeking (albeit violently) liberation of their land and culture. Although there are some attempts to examine the moral ambiguity of the situation, they're ultimately sidelined in favour of the smash-bang-boom style action that I lauded above (because, really, it is spectacular). A throwaway mention of Pakistan at the end of the book, in a story set well before the independence and partitioning of India and the conception of the Pakistan region by that name, indicates that little care was put into representing India as an historical entity so much as an exotic, colonial setting for another steampunk romp. It's hard to get mad at this series; taking liberties with history is what it is all about, after all. But I think it's important to engage with these problems, even when we might be tempted to excuse them by labelling the books as less "serious" (whatever that means).
Don't get me wrong, though: as much as this book has a few problems, I hella enjoyed every moment of it. The plotting and scenes are just so tightly managed and written; Ballantine and Morris wring every last shred of suspense out of this story. There are some juicy moments with the House of Usher, where we see that the fallout from previous books has shaken the House to its very foundation. And Books and Braun continually have to adjust and course-correct as new information becomes available. As a result, Ballantine and Morris keep them (and us) guessing right until the very end.
As far as I'm aware, the next novel is going to be the conclusion of the series (at least for Books and Braun's adventures). As sad as I am to see the series coming to its close, I like that Ballantine and Morris have a plan. I'm so curious to see how they intend to wrap up these storylines. My only hope is that they manage to present Books and Braun with some deeper, more meaningful challenges in the next story, ones that bring them back to their roots from the very first books.