Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon: Still solidly entertaining

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett fantasy book reviewsGideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGideon Smith and the Brass Dragon (2014) is David Barnett’s steampunk follow-up to Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, and continues that first book’s solidly entertaining plot, even as it shares a few of the same missteps. As this is a direct sequel, there will be spoilers for the first book, so readers beware.

In book one, Gideon is proclaimed the Hero of the Empire for his part in saving London and Queen Victoria from an attack using a magical/technological marvel shaped like a dragon (it also flies and belches fire). His companions included:

  • Maria, a mechanical girl with a human brain
  • Bent, a cynical journalist with a love for alcohol and spiced sausage
  • Rowena Fanshawe, the “Belle of the Airways” airship pilot
  • Cockayne, an American airship pilot of questionable ethics/loyalties

At the end of the story, Cockayne has stolen both the dragon and its pilot Maria and, we find out in book two, has headed for the North American continent, which in this world, where the American Revolution failed, is a mix of New Britain, Japanese California, the slave-owning southern Confederacy, New Spain, French Louisiana, Free Florida (created by former slaves), Free Texas (a lawless hellhole of a place whose unofficial capital is Steamtown/San Antonio), and a few other places. Steamtown, ruled over by a mostly crazy (and mostly machine) Thaddeus Pinch, is where Cockayne hopes to sell the dragon and where Gideon and his friends travel in an attempt to stop him and rescue Maria.Gideon Smith (3 Book Series) by David Barnett

Pinch is the major “evil” villain, while Cockayne plays the more amoral rogue with a softer heart than appears “villain,” and attempts to stop these two make up the core of the plot. But Barnett throws a lot in here. There’s a Zorro-like character, a nameless drifter looking for “America” that doesn’t exist but that he for some reason thinks is supposed to, a Japanese scientist working on something vitally important on the west coast, an attempted assassination of the governor of New York, a Romeo and Juliet type romance that greatly complicates things, aerial bombing raids, escaped slaves, a cyborg-like Charles Darwin, and a T-Rex (yes, a T-Rex).

As you can tell from the title, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is in the mode of the old-style pulps. And while there were a few pacing issues — at times it seemed to move a bit slowly and I’m not sure it needed all of its 300+ pages — for the most part Barnett pulls off that same rollicking, action-filled, grand-adventure kind of tone. And I’ll give him credit for a great opening scene.

Character-wise, Gideon himself still suffers from being a bit bland. Cockayne is somewhat more interesting, but he plays pretty much to type and his arc is easily predictable. Bent, as in book one, adds a nicely welcome bit of spice and cynicism, though I could have done without all the fart references and a lot less use of “effing this” and “effing that.”  My favorite characters were actually those with the least amount of page time — Charles Darwin, the Japanese scientist, and the mysterious nameless seeker of America. I wished we could have spent more time with each of them.

Stylistically, Barnett keeps things moving along without a lot of linguistic flourish. At times the language jarred a bit, as when a character referred to one of the women as a “chick,” but mostly the language/style doesn’t call attention to itself, which is pretty much what you want in this sort of adventure tale.

My biggest problem was with the ending section, but I don’t want to explain why since, well, it’s the ending section. Suffice to say it felt a bit jumbled and disproportionate, as well as a bit illogical/implausible (and yes, I’m saying that even as I’m happy to accept the flying dragon-like vehicle, the clockwork girl, and the Ghost of America That Should Have Been).

Though not quite as good as its predecessor, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon was a quick, mostly enjoyable lark of a read. In many ways, its alternative North America setting and whether the current status quo will remain or not was for me the most compelling/intriguing aspect, and I’m really hoping that if Barnett continues the story this becomes the focus (as it appears it might). That’s a book I’d quite look forward to reading.

September 16, 2014. Nineteenth century London is the center of a vast British Empire, a teeming metropolis where steam-power is king and airships ply the skies, and where Queen Victoria presides over three quarters of the known world—including the east coast of America, following the failed revolution of 1775. Young Gideon Smith has seen things that no green lad of Her Majesty’s dominion should ever experience. Through a series of incredible events Gideon has become the newest Hero of  the Empire.  But Gideon is a man with a mission, for the dreaded Texas pirate Louis Cockayne has stolen the mechanical clockwork girl Maria, along with a most fantastical weapon—a great brass dragon that was unearthed beneath ancient Egyptian soil. Maria is the only one who can pilot the beast, so Cockayne has taken girl and dragon off to points east. Gideon and  his intrepid band take to the skies and travel to the American colonies hot on Cockayne’s trail. Not only does Gideon want the machine back, he has fallen in love with Maria. Their journey will take them to the wilds of the lawless lands south of the American colonies – to free Texas, where the mad King of Steamtown rules with an iron fist (literally), where life is cheap and honor even cheaper. Does Gideon have what it takes to not only save the day but win the girl? David Barnett’s Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is a fantastical steampunk fable set against an alternate historical backdrop: the ultimate Victoriana/steampunk mash-up!

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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