The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, is the second in these writers’ steampunk adventure series. Wellington Books, Chief Archivist, and Eliza Braun, former field agent turned junior archivist, work for Queen Victoria’s Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Books is an aristocrat, a son of England, while Braun is a “colonial pepperpot” from New Zealand. Something happened in New Zealand that makes it impossible for Braun to return home. In The Janus Affair, we meet two people from Braun’s past that shed some light on those events.
After a woman disappears on a train, right before the eyes of Eliza and Wellington, Eliza is approached by New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard, who had come to England to pursue the vote for women (in New Zealand they already have it). Kate has a clockwork eye and jaw, the result of some incident in New Zealand, one that Eliza was involved with. Eliza is delighted to see Kate, while Kate’s son Daniel Sheppard brings up other, more complicated emotions.
Plainly the suffragist movement has been targeted by an enemy with the ability to make a woman disappear no matter how much security she has. Sheppard has asked Eliza to help discover who has targeted them.
The main mystery is pure steampunk. If anything, it’s over the top, as people disappear from plain view accompanied by bolts of light and the buzzing of electricity. The book explains how a person can trigger the weapon, but there is nothing to explain how it acquires a target or what it actually does. Ballantine and Tee are counting on their readers having watched Star Trek in order to accept the device. In the first Ministry book, Phoenix Rising, I was slightly more willing to accept things like Wellington’s computer, but the invention in The Janus Affair is not supported by either science or fantasy, and it was more of a stretch to suspend disbelief. On the other hand, the relationships deepen in this book, and more is revealed about our two agents.
The Janus Affair brings back other characters from the first book. Assassin and thief Sophia del Morte is back, as are the turncoat agent Bruce Campbell and everyone’s shadowy adversary, the Maestro. It seems pretty obvious that the Maestro is connected to one of the main characters in a way that has yet to be revealed to that character. Sophia carries out one objective for the Maestro, but then is reduced to being an errand-girl for the rest of the book.
The long-range goal of the Maestro continues in this book and leads to a fragmented structure. Many plotlines, such as the death of a Ministry agent and the intrigue practiced by the Duke of Sussex, are left dangling, put in place simply to prepare the way for future books. For example, [Potential spoiler. Highlight text if you want to read it] The “murder” of the agent seems particularly incomplete and I won’t be surprised if that character makes a “startling” return in later volumes. [Potential Spoiler ends.]
The book also read as “long” because of pacing choices. After the action sequences, characters seem to need a “spot of tea” just a bit too often, and some of the action scenes are too static.
Along the way, though, we see more of Wellington’s heroic side and his petty, not-so-heroic side, specifically in a soccer match with Sheppard. Circumstances force Eliza to face her feelings about her partner. We learn more about Alice, Eliza’s maid, and the flock of street children Eliza has recruited to help her investigations. I thought this book had structural problems, but I enjoyed the history of the suffrage movement, and the way the partnership — and the romance — continues to unfold.
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.