Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Agents Books and Braun are back. Aftering solving their case in Phoenix Rising in their “off hours”, the unlikely duo get involved in a new rash of abductions of suffragists from around London. These abductions involve strange, lightning-like teleportations. Braun knows one of the leaders of the suffragist movement—in fact, she used to date the leader’s son, back in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Books continues to struggle with keeping his military past and skills from Braun. Oh, and Lord Sussex and Bruce Campbell continue to plot nefarious plots about the future of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.
Just another day at the office.
Phoenix Rising was pretty much what one would expect from a first novel in a steampunk series. It was grandiose and larger-than-life, with a typical odd couple pair of protagonists in a fascinating alternate London. The Janus Affair is pretty much what one hopes for in a sequel, then: Ballantine and Morris raise the stakes, introduce new enemies, and revisit old ones. Books and Braun’s relationship evolves over the course of their new investigation, and we learn more about this steampunk world.
Ballantine and Morris continue to eschew fantasy but definitely not the fantastical. After all, the main plot device in The Janus Affair is a teleportation device! There are also bicycle-like helicopters (lococycles), which we can’t really even master today, and the automata we see are quite advanced in terms of their behaviour and functionality. I’d be curious to discover how this nineteenth-century England is so much more advanced than our England of the same era—what sort of inventions helped them along?
Meanwhile, we learn more about both Books and Braun’s pasts. I enjoy how Ballantine and Morris integrate these revelations into the plot itself rather than relying on awkward exposition. With Braun in particular, they use the classic convention of an old flame who has relevance to the case of the day. Douglas Sheppard is an awkward chap: an adventurer, son of a suffragist, and nominal supporter of women’s rights … but he’s also a bit of a chauvinistic boor. Once again, Ballantine and Morris demonstrate a deftness for developing even minor characters. Douglas is neither sympathetic nor entirely unlikable. It’s easy to see how Eliza once fell for him, and easy to see why she reacts the way she does when they are reunited.
Books’ past, on the other hand, was a little less shadowy already. We knew he had been in the military and had rejected that lifestyle when he rejected his father’s strict upbringing. But Ballantine and Morris round this story out with a few more details, and Eliza finally learns Wellington’s secret. I like that they chose to have Eliza find out so soon into the series. I love that they had Eliza and Wellington end up together by the end of the book. Some authors would have played a “will they or won’t they” game for books upon books—but no, Books and Braun are a little more than a team as they head off to America.
The Janus Affair offers compelling characters and a great story, even if the plot itself isn’t as good. The mystery here is not very gripping. The Culpeppers are dull villains with generic, religious zealotry that seems to come from nowhere. And I’m disappointed that the Maestro remains—literally—in the shadows. We get it: he’s dangerous and terrifies even normally cool customers like Sophia and Sussex. So what? He’s too much the cipher, and that makes him less interesting than he should be.
It’s a fun series. That quintessential ingredient that would push it from “fun” to “fucking amazing” is still missing. The combination of humour and sobriety isn’t quite balanced yet: I laugh, and I cry, but not quite in the proportions one might want. The Janus Affair is a novel in a series still finding its footing. Fortunately, it is fun enough despite its flaws to make it and any more sequels worth a look.