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WesternSFA
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
by David Barnett
Tor Paperback, 2013, $14.99, 351pp
Release Date: September 10, 2013
David Barnett had written a dazzling gem of high adventure.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is fusion SF in several ways.

It’s Steampunk, to start with, and it’s even more alternative with respect to history than that genre usually is. There’s much more going on than just cool gadgets and corsets. Empress Victoria rules most of the world absolutely, apart from the troublesome territory of Texas and a few isolated regions that aren’t worth the bother of conquering or annexing. Her agents cross the globe, plying the airways as well as sea and land. The adventures of her most adroit agent, Captain Trigger, as recounted by John Reed for the monthly publication World Marvels and Wonders, make the favorite reading of Gideon Smith, the son of a fisherman. Gideon would much rather travel the world for Queen and Empire than troll for a dwindling supply of cod and haddock off the shores of Sandsend.

It’s a little kinky, because you have Baroness Elizabeth Bathory, the lady who made a practice of bathing in the blood of virgins before she became undead and stopped worrying about her complexion. She’s on a quest to avenge Dracula, and possibly seduce Bram Stoker along the way, if he would stop harping about loyalty to his wife. You also have a mechanical girl who is variously the sex slave of a depraved manservant and the love interest of a naïve hero in the making.

And it is very much a valentine to cinematic adventure. If you have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and The Mummy, you will recognize some joyously rendered motifs. Just as all these movies featured outstanding character roles, the friends, rivals, and sidekicks in this book are real scene-stealers. I especially commend Barnett for Rowena Fanshawe, the airship pilot; the reporter Aloysius Bent, and the resourceful Mr. Okoth, who I imagined “as played by” John Rhys Davies. But Barnett gets all the characters right: young and old – and undead – cameo role, side-kick or protagonist, doomed lover, scoundrel or survivor.

The converging actions fit together precisely as clockwork. The author has a fine understanding of the mechanics of good writing, and he’s playful. He sets you up to expect a plot direction or revelation, then puts a twist in it.

Many books begin well and simply aren’t able to sustain their promise, or their momentum. This book got better as it swept along to a sensational climax.

There’s even the chance for a sequel, if I read the last chapter aright. Given how richly detailed Barnett’s imagination is, I hope Tor commissions several. These are characters I’d certainly like to meet again. Will Gideon Smith venture westward, to where the map shows, Here be Dragons? ~~ Chris R. Paige

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