At the beginning of Brooke Johnson’s steampunk fantasy-romance novel The Brass Giant (2015), Petra Wade, our protagonist, is a strong-willed young woman with a driving desire: she wants to be an engineer. Specifically, she wants to attend the University and Engineers Guild, which does not admit women. Petra, an orphan, has learned clockwork from an elderly shopkeeper, but her talent for engineering is far beyond that, and she thirsts to use her ability to improve the world.
Emmerich Goss is a wealthy, good-looking University student with copper-colored eyes, and he asks for Petra’s help powering his automaton, which is distinctive because it responds to controls that are manipulated remotely. Eager to prove herself, Petra agrees to disguise herself as a boy and sneak into the University to help him, but soon the young people uncover a conspiracy that involves Emmerich’s father, and the history of Petra’s parentage is revealed to her. (The reader may have already deduced it.)
The Brass Giant has some exquisite descriptions and an imaginative setting: a walled city in an alternate 19th century Great Britain. I liked the idea of the city’s quadrants defining wealth and status — Petra, an impoverished orphan and shopgirl, lives in the fourth quadrant. Descriptions of the subcity, which power the machines that make most of the city run, are beautifully done. And the story comes to life whenever Petra sits down to assemble or create something.
Unfortunately, once Petra and Emmerich fall in love, which is immediately, they forget how smart they are and begin making rash, impulsive decisions. This has very little effect on Emmerich, since every foolish action he takes ends up with consequences only for Petra. Soon Petra is in hiding, or supposed to be. Everyone tells her to lie low, but instead she sneaks out to find Emmerich… or he sneaks out and comes to her, reassuring us all with the statement that he wasn’t followed. Petra and Emmerich can’t stop themselves from embracing and kissing in Emmerich’s room only moments after his father has walked out of it, after Petra has come to the Goss house to work as a maid, even though Emmerich’s father has seen her several times, and was directly responsible for her needing to hide out.
I know that The Brass Giant is primarily a romance novel, but even in a romance, smart people can be filled with passion and yearning and still be smart. I really missed that here.
Other than those copper-brown eyes, it’s hard to see what Petra sees in Emmerich. He seems to be inventive, since he created the remote-controlled automaton, but he lacks any gumption or real courage, never once stands up to his father. If he does stand up to his father, it happens off-stage and we don’t see it. Much of the plot happens off-stage, and seems divorced from the actions of Petra or Emmerich; near the end of the book, for instance, another character assures Petra that he will make her serious legal problems disappear, because he can just do that. I felt suckered; had I been worried about Petra for no reason? Were there really no stakes, no actual risk?
There are anti-mechanical people who call themselves Luddites, who hate the Guild, and there is backstory about an attack on the Guild thirteen years previously, that left Petra orphaned. Clearly these elements will play a larger role in the sequel, The Guild Conspiracy, due out in September 2016. As it stands now, Petra hates the Luddites but is beginning to realize that the Guild is far from good.
I mentioned the copper-colored eyes. Petra muses on those eyes so many times that I was tempted to invent a drinking game. I think that one more editorial pass could have trimmed a few of those mentions to the improvement of the book. It’s awkward, though, because Emmerich is not an engaging character, so there’s not that much else to talk about. Solomon, Petra’s working class foster brother, is far more interesting.
I am giving The Brass Giant a low rating because of the disappointing character development and the strange disconnection of the plot from the actions of its main characters. Johnson has a vision, though. She can describe beautiful images, and when her engineer characters are acting like engineers this story thrums with energy. Clearly, some of my questions here will be answered in The Guild Conspiracy, and I’m going to read it, because I am confident that the smart, driven Petra we met at the beginning of this book will return.