It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Steampunk genre. And at a book fair in Frederick, MD this past summer, it was my delight to meet the authors of this month’s book review, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, creators of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurences. They were both dressed in Steampunk costume which was also an incredible delight. I picked up the first book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series there at their table. And when I got home, I was surprised a bit when I remembered I had previously added their book to my Amazon.com Wishlist. I suppose it was destined for me to read this book. Anyway, on to the review!
“Phoenix Rising: A Ministry Of Peculiar Occurrences Novel” is a Steampunk genre novel by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. The novel is set in London, circa 1894. Let’s first look at a few things that are not general knowledge to the average American reader. A Ministry, capital M, is a government department headed by a minister of state, often in England or Anglo influenced countries. During this period, the Victorian Era, there was a growing middle class brought on by industrialization, but a distinction among social classes was still prevalent. An air of nobility among the higher social classes permeated many relationships at this time. Gentlemen went to clubs and indulged in entertainments while ladies were expected to refrain from manly pursuits such as drinking, gambling, or wearing restrictive clothing.
Now with all that out of the way, I have to start by saying Ballantine and Morris have created quite the dynamic duo in Agents Wellington Books and Elizabeth Braun. At first, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the play on words with the obvious “Books” being the brains and “Braun” being the brawn of the partnership, but after I got a couple of chapters into the book, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it was something I barely noticed. Agent Books is an Archivist at the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, the covert agency of the English monarchy that deals in the bizarre and unusual. And Agent Braun is his dynamite toting partner in a bulletproof corset.
Ballantine and Morris’ plot starts out with a bang and doesn’t slow down. There is a bit of obvious tension between the two mismatched agents, but the authors do a superb job of building said tension at the right moments and letting it ebb at just the right moment or even sometimes defusing it. The partners investigate a cold case and uncover a secret fraternity dedicated to overthrowing the British status quo. Woven throughout that plot is the wonderful world created in this Victorian London. There are elements from both myth and literature thrown in to flesh out the world, such as the criminal organization The House of Usher. Burgeoning technological marvels are on the verge of changing the world anyway, and some of the agents at the Ministry are embracing change such as the dear Agent Wellington Books, inventing his own marvelous devices, while others plot to move the Empire away from the steam powered industrial revolution.
The writer’s mantra of “show don’t tell” is put to good use in “Phoenix Rising” as the authors paint their detailed world in a gritty, yet brass polished, manner including the sounds and smells of this alternate 19th century. The opera house scene in the book is a study in contrasting sounds. The agents seek to eavesdrop on a whispered conversation while they strive for silence and stealth all played out with the operatic performance of Macbeth setting the undertone for the entire scene. The banter, retorts, and witty comebacks between the protagonists underpin the dialogue throughout the story, but Ballantine and Morris use this quite well to impart not only the necessary information to the reader, but advance the relationship between Books and Braun.
What would appear as a formulaic partnership has the reader expecting the heroes to fall into each other’s arms or at least each other’s beds by the end of the book. However, as this is the beginning of a series, that next step leaves the reader wanting more. Books and Braun are fun and familiar characters who, in my opinion, would look wonderful on the silver screen or an anime canvas, have become two of my favorites. I hope to read many more of their adventures.
I give “Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel” five flags. I was surprised at what I thought were expected turns and entertained at each step the characters made.