Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris
I’m pleased to be able to report Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (Harper Voyager, 2011) Volume 1 Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences a success. It manages to do something very difficult with considerable skill and a great sense of fun. For this review, I need to remind people that I was born not long after the last dinosaur perished — a great disappointment to me because my parents always spoke with a look of wonder in their eyes when describing T.Rex in their heyday. This venerable age means I have read literature over the centuries. I have followed the adventures of Greek heroes, felt the passion in the sagas describing Beowulf’s exploits, and so on. More recently, I’ve been in thrall to the adventure stories of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. There’s something simple and direct about their narrative drive. Although there are occasional references to the social context in which the adventures are taking place, they are kept to a minimum and not allowed to distract from getting on with the action. In more modern times, people have been playing with this older format in what’s called steampunk. This takes the broad sweep of adventure and enlivens it by introducing anachronistic machinery. So it is that our Victorian forebears secretly invented miraculous steam-driven technology and used clockwork in entirely unexpected ways. Except most of these exercises are po-faced and formulaic. Authors are lazy and throw in an airship or land leviathan for effect without thinking about how the culture would have to develop to produce such machines. They believe the essence of steampunk lies in trotting out the same tired old props and littering them through uninspiring plots in the hope of entertaining the mass market with their novelty. Except the results, for the most part, are boring.
This is a successful steampunk because the authors have taken the trouble to develop interesting characters and put them in a classic adventure with a credible social and political context. Britain was actually quite strongly influenced by anarchism from around 1880 to the start of World War I. Although the anarchists never managed to create a coherent political platform, they were contributing significantly to the discussion of the problems in Victorian society. Indeed, their contribution was, at times, highly original and difficult to ignore unlike the Socialists were were more passive and therefore more easily ignored. To get this period right, authors must therefore think about why access to education was limited, how the encouragement of autodidacticism relieved the problem, how Utopianism came to take root, where communal living became a practical way of life and how the status of women evolved.
We start with our colonial heroine, Eliza Braun, using guns and lots of explosives to rescue a kidnapped archivist, Wellington Books, from the clutches of a secret organisation (it’s brave of the authors to change the idiom from “all brawn and no brains” to Braun and Books for this pairing). When they return to London, both are disconcerted by being paired together to run the Archives. This is not what a destruction-minded field agent expects but, as you would expect, it all turns out right because she stumbles across the cold files left by her old partner. Her enthusiasm jolts Welly out of his quiet routines and they are soon charging around London in pursuit of the Phoenix Society, a secret organisation that traces its roots back to Roman times. The modern version is, of course, out to bring down the current order for the benefit of all. Except, once you look behind the curtain and see how they actually behave, it leaves you wondering how the mass of people in London would benefit from their ministrations.
Our mismatched pair naturally find there’s more to each other than first meets the eye. The diffident archivist can actually defend himself and Eliza also proves more than a wrecking ball in motion. That’s as we would expect as all books of this type play with stereotypical expectations about the role of women and how straight-laced men should respond. It’s also amusingly obvious one half of the writing team was born in New Zealand and is therefore justifiably positive about the benefits of an upbringing in this remote outpost of the British Commonwealth. The author’s heritage also shows up in the syntax. In an American edition, it’s actually quite pleasing to see many British English spellings and sentence constructions. If it’s supposed to be a period British book, touches like this should be routine.
On balance, Phoenix Rising is a successful first outing and I hope to see more from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences — I’ve got The Janus Affair on order. It also confirms Pip or Philippa Ballantine as an author to watch. The same sense of humour is on display in this book and it makes the entire reading experience pure fun.