Phoenix Rising (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series #1)

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Phoenix Rising (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series #1) by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

There are plenty of options when it comes to choosing a steampunk title. While some positively shine with creative plots, witty dialogue and nefarious machinations, others languish in tired storylines, subpar banter and predictable villainy.

Although Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel certainly doesn’t fall in the latter category, it doesn’t quite belong in the former, either.

The book’s premise is this: When corpses wash up on the banks of the Thames, devoid of blood and bone, Eliza D. Braun and Wellington – agents within England’s Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences – are thrown together as the most unlikely partners. The two agents must race against time to discover who is behind the evil lurking in the streets of Victorian England before it’s too late.

The book’s tag reads: Malevolence has met its match in Agents Books and Braun.

It might better read: Mediocrity has found its home in Agents Books and Braun.

Harsh? Possibly. But, all in all, a rather fair assessment.

As much as the reader wants to dive headfirst into a new steampunk adventure, it takes quite a while to actually become interested in the book. Even though it started out with a heavy action scene, the story fails in creating reader concern for the two main characters.

Books and Braun – an obvious play on brains and brawn – are good characters, but they’re presented in a way that makes it rather difficult to emotionally connect with them. It takes several chapters before the reader develops anything that resembles concern for the duo. Braun is rash and blindly charges into situations. Books is the snappy intellect who provides the voice of reason, even if Braun rarely listens. The dynamic feels clichéd.

Like in most novels, the two leads develop an attraction for each other, and it’s here where the story loses any momentum it’s managed to build. The romance is rushed and, at times, even forced. Without giving anything away, a key scene in which Wellington escorts Braun home smacks of fan fiction clichés and is disappointing. The writers fail in establishing believable reasons for the agents’ eventual attraction to one another.

That being said, the storyline is fair and occasionally amusing. There are better steampunk novels out there – Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series comes to mind – and on the whole, this is, at best, mildly entertaining.

The second book comes out in May 2013. Being a firm believer in second chances, I’ll most likely pick it up and see what’s in store for Agents Books and Braun. Hopefully, the two agents will have gotten their steampunk legs and embark on better-constructed adventure with a more heart and a solid plot.

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The Iron Wyrm Affair

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The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Steampunk is in its prime, and there’s no shortage of books to satisfy whatever steampunk flavor you crave. From werewolves to vampires to flying dirigibles and the undead… it’s all out there for the savvy reader.

However, The Iron Wyrm Affair takes steam in a new direction, combining detailed mystical elements with the familiar, yet still impressive, logic-propelled machines that color most steampunk novels. 

The premise of The Iron Wyrm Affair is this: Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress to the Queen, has been tasked with protecting unregistered mentath Archibald Clare, all the while trying to deduce who is out to control or destroy Britannia’s reign. Aided by her shield Mikal – who may or may not be trying to kill her – Bannon must battle unsavory sorcerers, magnificent mecha, wyrms and flesh-feeding gryphons. And if she can avoid destroying another expensive gown in the process – all the better!

What sets this book apart from so many others that litter the steampunk genre is its exquisite attention to detail and the lovingly-crafted world which pays homage to Holmes’ London. Oftentimes, steam authors gloss over world building in order to focus on character development or to drive the pace of the storyline. But not Saintcrow. Her Londinium is a labor of love, each section of the city expertly detailed and given life as Bannon and Company wind their way through its streets, tracking down another piece of the mystery.

Saintcrow fully develops the magic mythos that plays an integral role in her story, and by doing so, creates a storyline that is not only compelling, but also believable. Magic isn’t an afterthought in this story. It is a major propellant, and as such, the reader must focus and absorb the magical foundation as it’s carefully laid. It’s refreshing to read a story in which the author not only encourages, but requires, critical thinking from their reader.

While many steampunk stories feature leads who inevitably fall in love with one another, the lack of romance between Bannon and Clare is a welcome change. With no sexual tension between Bannon and Clare, the reader observes a true respect and mutual admiration develop between these two without any underlying motive.

All in all, the story adopts a steady pace that never once feels sluggish or rushed, and by the end, solid relationships have formed between the cast of characters and an excellent adventure comes to a close.

I look forward to reading the next adventure of Bannon and Clare, and I suggest you move their first case to the top of your reading list.