When I was a kid, I often felt the sheer joy of anticipation when a favourite author published a new title, it hit the bookstore shelves and I snapped it up in a heartbeat. I haven't felt that way for a long time, even though there have been many authors whom I've thoroughly enjoyed and many series that I've followed.
This month, however, I've found that feeling again and with two books: Viola Carr's 'The Devious Dr Jekyll,' which is still on the way as I write, and the new Gideon Smith from David Barnett, the third in a series that is so far up my alley that I could live in it.
I discovered this character in 'Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon,' the second in the series, (click here for review) which was a rip-roaring alternate history hurling both real and fictional characters into imaginative peril. I devoured it with relish and eagerly sought out its predecessor, 'Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which turned out to be even better.
One reason that the first book was better than the second, however much pure, undistilled awesomeness pervaded the sequel, was that Gideon Smith had a real purpose in it. (Click here for a review of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl)
In the first book, he's just another fisherman's son, dreaming of adventure but never finding it, until of course it lands right in his lap in the forms of Bram Stoker, Countess Bathory and the Children of Heqet. He goes in search of Capt Lucian Trigger, the Hero of the Empire, who takes care of this sort of thing in every edition of 'World Marvels & Wonders' and, when he discovers that Trigger isn't what he seems, steps up to become the hero himself. It's a great coming of age story that becomes a voyage of self-discovery, a magical opportunity for Gideon Smith.
In the second book, he's the Hero of the Empire himself but his heroics are routine. Sure, he struggles with self-doubt as much as he does the perilous situations he's called to survive, but the adventurer finds himself playing second fiddle to the adventure. Smith becomes the boring lead who takes care of business while we enjoy what all the supporting character actors get up to.
As if David Barnett himself realised that the title character of his series had become the least interesting, he shakes things up nicely for the third episode, 'Gideon Smith and the Mark of the Ripper.' Investigating hypnotist Markus Mesmer as part of an odd case, Smith finds his memory whisked away from him by Mesmer's amazing hypno-array. He's left walking the streets of London without knowledge of who he is or what he's supposed to be doing.
Now, that's hardly a positive state of affairs at the best of times, but it's especially bad during the long and violent reign of Jack the Ripper, who is making a mockery of the police, and the just as violent response of the people of London who are eagerly taking matters into their own hands.
With Smith effectively out of action, it's up to his compatriots to save the day, but Rowena Fanshawe, the Belle of the Airways, is also out of action, having been arrested for murder. That means that Aloysius Bent has to step up from chronicler to adventurer and Maria, the mechanical girl, must find her humanity in and around her searches for Smith, the girl he was trying to find (who happens to look just like her) and Jack the Ripper himself. This approach worked for me wonderfully.
Another approach that worked for me wonderfully was the way in which David Barnett treated this third book as a complex puzzle, weaving in characters not only from the first two books but also the suggested history that came before them. This does mean that Convenience plays a leading role, almost becoming the most important character of all, because everyone that anyone meets clearly ends up being somebody with a key part to play in the story, but we are kept enjoyably busy trying to figure out all the permutations to get ahead of the reveals.
In keeping with the first two books, which mix fact and fiction into a new alternate British Empire, new and familiar names are brought into play. The detective in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation is Insp. Lestrade, who is plagued by the occasional presence of 'the Great Detective', whose name is carefully never revealed but who is apparently a mental patient in the care of one Dr. John Watson. I adore that idea and am eager to see it explored further in the fourth Gideon Smith volume.
Against the trend of the first two books, though, this one stays firmly put. 'Mechanical Girl' whisked the core set of characters from England to Egypt and back again, while 'Brass Dragon' spun them over the Atlantic to chase around what would be the United States had those pesky rebels won their revolution, from New York in British America down to independent Texas, over to New Spain and eventually to Nyu Edu, the second Japanese empire on the west coast. This one, however, starts in London, proceeds in London and ends in London, the heart of the British Empire, as dangerous a place as it might be. We do get to see quite a lot of it though; from iconic landmarks such as Parliament and the Old Bailey to the sordid streets of Whitechapel and even below them to the sewers with even more colourful characters than above.
Make no mistake, this is a ride. We have next to no time to even breathe in between one adventure and another and the ever-tightening web never lets us go. I started this one evening and finished it the next afternoon, fighting with myself to go to sleep in between. I'll leave it a month and then force myself to read through it at a much slower pace and see if anything falls out as inconsistent or just plain wrong. On my first wild rush through, it all played out gloriously, if rather conveniently, as I mentioned earlier.
Perhaps then I'll focus less on the ride and more on the development of the characters, heightened here by cunningly revealed gobbets of information that flesh out their back stories. Maria, especially, receives a wonderful story arc here, discovering more about how she was created, what she did before her memory began and how the Atlantic Artefact in her head changes who she was into who she is becoming. Aloysius Bent has his own turn in the spotlight here and he proves that he's as worthy a lead as a sidekick, if never a Hero of the Empire. That's Gideon Smith, of course, who is far more interesting to us when he's been knocked for six and has to figure out who he is and why he does what he does.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is the introduction of ambiguity to his job by questioning whether the Empire is really the force for good that he's always believed it to be or whether it's just on the side of its own best interests, just like Walsingham, its most sinister face.
One of the biggest problems with most steampunk or gaslamp fantasy books is that they often focus on all the cool things about the Victorian era, such as the ingenuity of the industrial revolution, the hope that science was about to explain everything and the many great men who made that possible. Far less often do they acknowledge the downsides, such as the fact that those great men were generally men of breeding, because women, anyone of a different race, sexual orientation or cultural bent and especially anyone foolish enough to be born poor were seen as lesser human beings, if human beings at all.
This book addresses that concern by including a wild variety of characters, including a couple of madams, a transvestite vaudeville artiste and some of the scavengers who inhabit the London sewers. What's especially important is that they affect the plot in no small way and Gideon Smith, who naturally recovers from his forced amnesia by the end of the book, gets to puzzle on who matters and who doesn't, from his perspective and that of the empire he serves. This sets up wild unpredictability for book four, which is exactly what a staid archetype like Smith needs to retain our interest.
Bring on the next Gideon Smith, I say, if it has a mere fraction of the imagination and energy that Barnett poured into this one! ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles in the series click here