As one might perhaps be able to tell from the title, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett, is a paean to the pulp adventure novels of yore a la Frank Reade and His New Steam Man. This sort of thing can be a bit tricky to pull off, as it is a fine line between keeping the spirit of the source material in terms of characters, dialogue, and plotting and crossing over that line into the trite and silly. For the most part, Barnett pulls it off. Enough so that I’d be interested in picking up the clearly planned sequel.
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl opens with a wonderfully chilling scene, as poor Annie Crook, a young shopgirl and as-needed prostitute, learns her secretive beau is in fact the grandson of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, she gets the news only slightly before Victoria’s head of intelligence — Walsingham — does and he takes care of the potential little problem (grandson “Eddy” has proposed to Annie) in ruthless fashion. Two years later we meet 24-year-old Gideon in his hometown fishing village. When a mysterious tragedy kills his father, Gideon finds himself heading to London to seek help from Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire, whose adventures (composed by Trigger’s version of Dr. Watson — John Reed) Gideon has been obsessively reading about in the monthly pennydreadfuls.
Soon he is caught up in a Trigger-like adventure of his own, filled with gruesome mummy-like creatures, vampires, Jack the Ripper, airships, air pirates, slavers, and a trip to a long-lost Egyptian pyramid. Luckily, he’s picked up a few friends, including:
- Maria, a mechanical girl with a human brain
- Bent, a cynical journalist with a love for alcohol and spiced sausage
- Bram Stoker, yes that Bram Stoker
- Countess Elizabeth Bathory Dracula, yes that Dracula
- Lucian Trigger, an aging homosexual military veteran pining for his lover John Reed, whom he’s heard nothing of since he traveled to Egypt a year ago
- Rowena Fanshawe, the “Belle of the Airways” airship pilot
- Cockayne, an American airship pilot of questionable ethics/loyalties
The characters are consistently likable, though they vary in how compelling they are. Gideon is, to be honest, a bit bland and his naïvete sometimes seems strained, while his transformation happens a bit too quickly and fully. Bent, on the other hand, is wholly believable and a wonderful mix of cynicism and humor. If Bent was the most broadly enjoyable character, Countess Bathory was for me the most interesting, and her relationship with Stoker the most interesting dynamic, though Trigger came in a close second. Maria is solid (no pun intended, well maybe) if a bit predictable. I felt her more tragic elements should have been highlighted a bit more and deepened; at times it felt like they were a bit uncomfortably trivialized or underplayed. Fanshawe and Cockayne play mostly to type roles (with Cockayne feeling slightly inconsistent), but Bent’s cynical wit, Bathory’s edgy bite (cough cough), and Trigger’s complete opposite of expectations/characterization go a long way toward enlivening what otherwise might have been somewhat pallid characterization.
The story, as mentioned, is right out of pulp novel territory and Barnett has a good time merging that genre with steampunk, creating an alternative history romp through an 1890 world where England still controls large swathes of northeastern America, walling out the Texas slavers/warlords and the slaver Confederacy via the Mason-Dixon Wall; Japan controls part of the western coast and Spain the deep south. Technology is a mix of clockwork and steam and we get to see both in plenty of action. After that chilling opening scene, the plot slows a bit when we first meet Gideon, gradually building as the rest of the characters one by one become part of the larger group. Events really take off when Fanshawe’s airship, The Skylady II, does and our heroes are placed in one life-or-death crisis after another. Toward the end the book does edge a bit near, if not over, that line mentioned above, with some classic monologuing, some “You fiend!” dialogue, and the like, but perhaps this is just the price one pays for entry with this sort of work.
Barnett brings the main arc of the novel to a satisfying resolution while at the same time setting up the clear sequel. While Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl didn’t, I would say, capture me wholeheartedly, it was an enjoyable, amiable read with several engaging characters, an intriguing world, and a sincere sense of old-time adventuring. I liked Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, but I’m looking forward even more to the sequel, as it will be set, at least some of it, in a very interesting New World. Recommended.