|This book, the second in David Barnett's steampunk series after 'Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl' is my sort of novel. It's a rip-roaring action adventure that plays as fast and loose with history as it does with its characters. It's a real ripping yarn that never slows down and never loses its sense of humor even in the face of a growing subtext that's surprisingly serious.
While this series belongs to Smith, the official Hero of the Empire, serving Queen Victoria and her dominion on which the sun never sets, he's actually one of the less interesting characters in the story. He only became the Hero in the first book and he's still coming to terms with what it actually means. He grows as he goes, but it's going to take a few books for him to find his stride and he's always going to be in danger of being outshone by the characters around him.
There are plenty of those here, because we're in North America, a continent in flux and those changes are driven by memorable men (and women, who aren't always content to stay in the shadows in this alternate Victorian era). While one character, who is never named though I have my guess as to who he is, works towards an America for all people, his vision was frustrated by a number of historical events.
The American revolution of 1775 failed, for a start, so New York is a British metropolis, the largest city in a British America, even if Boston is its capital. It encompasses more than just New England but precious little of what we know as the United States today. Much of it is still open territory, ripe for expansion, but many of the edges are already taken by other nations. San Francisco is now Nyu Edo, the heart of the Californian Meiji, a new Japanese nation created by the son of the Emperor, who has the stubbornness and technology to not die when he should. Below the Mason Dixon Wall, built by the British as a symbol as much as a boundary, is Free Florida, French Louisiana and the Confederacy, where slavery remains in force. Further south, what we know as Mexico is mostly New Spain.
And most importantly to this story, San Antonio is Steamtown, a wild west place of brothels, card sharks and alcohol, run by Thaddeus Pinch, now more of an automaton than a man. It's to Steamtown that Smith needs to travel to retrieve the brass dragon of the title, an ancient Egyptian flying machine stolen from the British in the first book by the cad Louis Cockayne, who is finding that selling it to Pinch isn't going as well as he'd hoped. Beyond bringing back the dragon, a potent weapon as a much as a technological marvel, Smith has a very personal reason to be on its trail, namely that it's piloted by Maria, a clockwork girl with a whore's brain, a strange lady with whom Smith has fallen deeply in love.
If this sounds like I've just transcribed the book verbatim, don't worry, this is merely scratching the surface. Barnett packs so much into this novel that we wonder if we should read it at the rate of a page a day just to allow everything to sink in properly. That it appears to be very much a sequel to the first book means that his occasional recaps add to the effect. If I often wondered which historical figures he'd shoehorn in next, I sometimes thought about whether he'd run out of them. He does put some very famous people to very good use, I'll give him that, starting with the steam powered automaton that is Charles Darwin, exploring the Lost World of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even if doesn't quite occupy the same spot on the map. The other name Barnett gives it, which I won't divulge, is a stroke of genius that leads to much glee in the latter portions of the book.
The primary characters are completely fictitious, though; Smith the main player but with a host of others at his back. I can visualize the movie poster now with its ensemble cast in full painted glory, but three would be front and center. Aloysius Bent is the journalist who accompanies Smith wherever he goes, so as to chronicle his exploits for 'World Marvels & Wonders'. Rowena Fanshawe is a daring airship pilot whose feelings for Smith are only matched by his for the clockwork girl, Maria. They're both wonderfully drawn characters, enough that it's a shame that they walk in Smith's shadow.
The second tier of characters may be less prominent, but they aren't less important and there are many of them. Cockayne, Pinch and Maria have much to do, of course, as do Inez Batiste Palomo, the daughter of the governor of Ciudad Cortes who puts on a mask to become the feared La Chupacabras; Chantico, her stupid Yaqui Indian lover; Haruki Serazawa, the genius scientist of the Californian Meiji who builds giant steam powered mecha; and the Nameless, who consistently lives up to that epithet but shows up in all the right places at all the right times.
Given how much territory Barnett maneuvers these characters through, both physical and storywise, it's impossible to pick favorite scenes because there are just so many of them. The book runs just over 350 pages, but it feels like it covered enough ground for double that even as it unfolds so quickly that it could have blistered through in half as many. I hope Barnett left enough imagination for books three, four and five because I'm eagerly awaiting them. At least, coming in a book late means that I only have to track down 'Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl' to run through another adventure, which if the recaps of it here are anything to go by, is just as jam-packed full of thrills as its sequel.
There are precious few flaws. We end up in a few places that are telegraphed a little too overtly and some of the later action unfolds a little too quickly for its own good, but that's not too much hardship to bear. In the end, my biggest complaints were that the brass dragon was far less believable a gadget than any of the many others in the story and that Gideon Smith is too relentlessly nice to really warrant this series to be centered on him. Sure, he should continue as the Hero of the Empire and leap into wild adventures whenever the crown requires, but the series should really be named either for Bent or Fanshawe, probably the latter. Let Smith be the hero behind her shoulder in that poster rather than the other way around.
And at the end of the day, as Bent would say, “it's effing marvellous.” ~~ Hal C F Astell