“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.