I so thoroughly enjoyed 'Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon', (click here for review) a pulp romp through an alternate Victorian world where the British have vanquished the upstart American revolutionaries and so rule most of the globe, that I had to seek out its predecessor, 'Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.'
I knew much about it already, because the second book is careful to recap much of what went down before it began, but it doesn't hold a candle to reading it on its own merit. Strangely I found that the original is a much better book than its sequel, even though the latter pulled out more stops and was a thoroughly enjoyable read too.
Partly this is because the second book suffered from inevitably being a sequel, feeling like a new adventure in a world whose rules had already been set in stone, while the first book feels much more like the glorious burst of imagination through which those rules were forged. It's far more open to anything, whereas the sequel is a little constricted by what came before.
Mostly though, it's because the lead character, Gideon Smith, is far more interesting as he discovers himself than he is after he's done so. In the second book, he was the stalwart hero, the leading man who gets things done while we sit back and lavish our attention on the far more interesting supporting characters, but here he's just as worthy of note as the many fascinating folk he encounters. And those folk are fascinating indeed, but let's back up a step.
As the story begins, Gideon is a young man stuck in a backwater, a northern fishing village called Sandsend where he trawls the North Sea with his father for fish to sell down the coast in Whitby. His world is utterly routine, but he lives vicariously through the adventures of Capt Lucian Trigger, the Hero of the Empire, as related in the pages of 'World Marvels & Wonders'. What he soon discovers is that adventure can be found anywhere, something initially raised by the mystery of his father's boat returning to shore unmanned, all hands presumed lost.
Enter Bram Stoker, in Whitby to research a novel, which we're expected to recognise as 'Dracula', especially when another ship promptly runs aground, this one a continental vessel with a cargo of coffins of earth all the way from Transylvania. In this world though, the vampire it carried turns out to be his widow, the former Countess Bathory, a beautiful woman questing for vengeance after the Children of Heqet stormed their castle and killed him, all to steal a jewelled Egyptian scarab. This isn't just 'Dracula', it's 'Jewel of the Seven Stars' too!
Smith and Stoker investigate a little, but their goals quickly diverge and Smith takes his leave, travelling south to elicit the assistance of Capt Trigger. On his way, he encounters the home of Prof Hermann Einstein whence he rescues a beautiful sentient automaton from the clutches of the absent Einstein's servant, Crowe. This is Maria, the mechanical girl of the title, who along with Stoker, Bathory, Trigger and others still to join the adventure also has a part in the wider story that gradually unfolds.
For Smith's sake, and he is the lead character after all, I'd recommend that anyone seeking out his novels do read them in order, starting with this one and following up with its sequel, which begins roughly as this one ends. I found it interesting, however, to discover that many of the supporting characters actually grow well the other way around, where this book serves as a prequel rather than a predecessor. From this standpoint, I enjoyed discovering the prior history of Aloysius Bent, foul mouthed London journalist; Rowena Fanshawe, the Belle of the Airways; and American outlaw Louis Cockayne more than I might have enjoyed their growth into the second book.
There are a number of characters here who don't make it into the second book, of course, and I shouldn't spoil who those are, but I did get a kick out of the inclusion of Varney the Vampire, the most famous Penny Dreadful character of them all. Barnett does have a glorious time merging entirely fictional characters conjured up from his imagination with others who sprang from the minds of earlier writers and fictionalised versions of real people from history. I got a particular kick out of the vampire hunting legacy handed down to Stoker from J Sheridan le Fanu, another Irish master of the macabre. Early scenes, featuring W, a mysterious agent of the Crown, don't merely serve to tie in the Jack the Ripper murders; they also echo the conspiracy theories of 'From Hell', suggesting that Barnett, an English writer remixing public domain characters for pulp entertainment must surely be a fan of Alan Moore.
If the greatest success of the book is the imagination with which its various characters were created, their respective development is another. Not all grow as characters, Aloysius Bent being a great example of remaining who he is throughout two books, but others do. Smith grows here magnificently, so demonstrating why his name is in the book's title, even if he doesn't grow much further in its sequel. The dynamic between Capt Trigger and his lover and chronicler, Dr John Reed, is a fascinating one that has inherent importance, beyond prompting the story to move in a number of directions. The very different relationship between Stoker and Bathory is an enjoyable one too that I'd like to see rekindled in a future episode. Book two goes off in a completely different direction, so neither was involved in that story.
At the end of the day, this is a more consistent novel than its sequel, a better character study and a more appropriate story for Gideon Smith. However, the second book appropriates even more characters from culture and history and so builds this alternate universe to new heights. It also moves quicker and with more action. I hope we'll soon see a third book in this series and I'm interested to see which of the two it more resembles or whether Barnett moves off in a whole new direction again.
This is highly recommended for fans of steampunk shenanigans, alternate histories and cultural mashups. It's well written pulp entertainment and we can't have too much of that! ~~ Hal C F Astell