Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are agents in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, taking on the uncanny in the name of Queen and country. Agent Books is a straitlaced archivist — don’t call him a librarian — who enjoys mechanical tinkering and his peaceful job among the Ministry’s old files. Agent Braun is an outspoken New Zealand transplant who loves to blow things up. At the beginning of Phoenix Rising, the two agents land themselves in the doghouse with the Ministry and are assigned to work together. The unlikely partners then discover a new lead in a cold case that left Braun’s former partner institutionalized in Bedlam. An evil secret society is on the rise, and only Books and Braun can thwart their dastardly plans.
Phoenix Rising is one of those steampunk novels that’s not too serious. Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris fill the pages with explosions, witty banter, clever fashion, chase scenes, derring-do, and more explosions. The writing style intentionally evokes Victorian writing mannerisms and plays them for laughs. You’ll find plenty of steampunk gizmos, too, ranging from the handy (such as Braun’s armored corset and certain incendiary devices) to the just plain fun (Books’ “difference engine” is set up to have a function similar to that of an mp3 player).
In what may be another homage to Victorian fiction — especially Victorian serial novels — Phoenix Rising is rather episodic. It’s easy to read a quick chapter here and there when you have a break in your schedule.
The only jarring aspect is the darker twist that occurs when our heroes meet one of the villains. Up to this point, while there had been plenty of violence, it had the feel of action/adventure rather than horror. This character has a nasty streak of sadism and his scenes are too disturbing to take lightly. This section is incredibly tense and well-written, so I can’t complain about it too much, but I’m not sure it fits the “popcorn” mood of the rest of the book.
The action/adventure atmosphere does return, however, and the ending promises more Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences cases to come. With the dry humor and crackling chemistry displayed in Phoenix Rising, I’m sure they’ll be fun.
“The name is Braun. Eliza Braun.” She’s one-half of the “Books and Braun” team who use books and brawn to protect the British Empire and good Queen Victoria from evildoers, in Phoenix Rising, the first book of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, written by Pip (Philippa) Ballantine and Tee Morris.
Phoenix Rising takes advantage of every possible steampunk trope and a kitchen-sink-ful of other influences as well. You’ll recognize The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the movie, not the comic book,) Warehouse 13, Dark Shadows, Doctor Who, the 1960s British TV show The Avengers, Ian Fleming, Kage Baker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe and even a little H. Rider Haggard at the end. There are analytical engines, airships, fancy guns, automatons and amazing chemical concoctions galore, with lots of rivets, studs and leather.
Wellington Books is an archivist for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. He is used to working alone but circumstances throw him together with Eliza D. Braun, a field agent with an explosive history. Eliza is haunted by memories of her former partner, who went mad investigating a series of paranormal murders. Originally on the trail of the sinister House of Usher, Braun and Books soon uncover a secret group called the Phoenix Society, whose goal is some kind of British “ethnic purity” and the cleansing of an empire they believe is compromised. While Eliza and Wellington begin a clandestine investigation, the Queen’s private secretary works to suborn another Ministry agent. It isn’t clear yet if the secretary is part of Phoenix, or working for his own wicked ends.
Wellington’s character is developed from the inside out, and it’s plain that he still has inner demons. Eliza is not really developed. Facts are slapped one atop the other like noodle layers in a lasagna. She’s a cheeky colonial — and she’s rich. She likes to blow things up — and she collects art objects. These are not complexities, but frankly, since Eliza provides the energy for the book, she doesn’t need to be too complex.
The book requires Wellington, who is intellectual and observant, to behave stupidly at least once in order for the plot to work. I found the pacing of the novel to be episodic, which was distracting, and once Books and Braun infiltrate one of the secret societies, the tone changes abruptly. Brutality and death that had previously been handled offstage becomes front-and-center action. I thought this was jarring and unnecessary. The explanation of how the ubiquitous “mechamen” (mechanical men) are held together is quite chilling and evil enough.
I give Phoenix Rising a solid three stars. While I wasn’t happy with the wholesale looting of other works, I did yelp with glee when I came across a guest list with the names Barnabas and Angelique Collins on it. I guess one person’s “looting” is another person’s “homage.” Many of the names are puns or wordplays; the Ministry director’s elegant blond secretary is named Shillingsworth, which is darn close to “Moneypenny.” I won’t be marking my calendar to track down the sequel when it comes out, but I probably will read it, if only to see if my guesses about Wellington’s connection to certain shadowy characters are correct.
Tales from the Archives — Tales from the Archives are short stories set in the world of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. They explore events mentioned in the novels, characters seen and unseen and may include novel teasers of things to come. Some of the stories in these collections can also be purchased individually.