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Victorian England must have been a very scary place indeed. With infamous fiends and secret societies so well documented, we imagine the dark alleyways and nascent industrial slums of London crawling with filth and malevolent characters of every ilk. Confirming this historical portrait is PHOENIX RISING (Harper Voyager), the first volume in the MINISTRY OF PECULIAR OCCURRENCES NOVEL series by Pip Ballantine (pictured) and Tee Morris.
Investigating these nefarious circumstances is the domain of the Ministry, a sort of X-Files of the realm. The heroes, too, are a handsome, dark-haired gentleman and a firecracker redhead. They are agents Wellington Books, brilliant, understated guardian of the precious and extensive Ministry archives, and gorgeous Eliza Braun, sassy New Zealand colonial whose explosive temper and even more explosive weaponry land her in, and then get her out, of serious trouble. Protected by a custom-made bulletproof corset, the girl can more than handle herself.After using just a tad too much dynamite in the daring rescue of Wellington, Eliza finds herself demoted from field agent to assistant archivist. Bored and underappreciated, she rebelliously reopens the most notorious case file: an unsolved series of gruesome murders—bodies turning up boneless, bloodless, eviscerated—the same case that sent her best friend and former partner raving mad to Bedlam Hospital. Using her considerable feminine wiles, Eliza drags Wellington into the fray. Trying their best to remain clandestine, but failing miserably to stay undercover, Eliza and Wellington follow scattered clues leading to a perilous investigation of the mysterious Phoenix Society, a scheming, demonic guild of upper-class gentry.Ballantine and Morris include vigorous chase scenes and blow-by-blow fights, most notably a girl-on-girl rumble at an operatic performance of MACBETH in which explosive gas and several stage weapons are employed. But though a body count rises, the carnage is understated, and the gore remains minimal, barely classifying the novel as horror; strange and creepy, perhaps, but not technically frightening.Instead, Ballantine and Morris identify their work as steampunk, and define the esoteric and widely adopted concept very nicely on their website. Briefly, the genre, which encompasses multiple artistic media, looks to the work of H.G.Wells and Jules Verne as their root inspirations. Imaginative, futuristic style and gadgetry somehow finds itself stuck at the gritty turn of the 20th century, except that the women are sexually progressive, and the fashion would work brilliantly in any Glasgow pub today.PHOENIX RISING, whatever it’s genre designation, is a rather thrilling and labyrinth detective romp laced with humor, feminine moxie and mayhem. The prose is Dickens on steroids, yet it somehow grips the reader; the novel is long and dense, but skimming is virtually impossible. Every word builds character development or contributes to the intricate plot details. The language is creative and fun, a modern version of Modernism that has the reader believing in the existence of pre-microchip robotics and laser guns; the possibilities are endless. A dark and twisted roller-coaster of a read for those fond of elegant vernacular and bizarre weaponry.
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