It's time to get fantastical! I am doing my bit to stoke the engines of Wyrd and Wonder with my latest review, covering Rod Duncan's steampunk trilogy The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. Read all about it below!
I must confess to not reading a lot of steampunk. I had a not especially enjoyable experience reading a steampunk book a while ago, deciding that perhaps the sub-genre wasn’t for me. But every time I went into Waterstones, I would find myself in the science fiction and fantasy section (unsurprisingly) and these books just seemed to leap off the shelves at me. This probably has a lot to do with the fantastic cover design for each book, which is undeniably eye catching. For reasons unknown, I decided that rather than just reading and reviewing part one of this trilogy for my first Wyrd and Wonder post, I’d do all three. A thousand pages of smoke and soot awaited me - but would I be sold on steampunk by the end of it?
Our heroine here is Elizabeth Barnabus, a former travelling circus performer whose expertise in illusion allow her to disguise herself as her fictional twin brother Edwin. A useful ability in her line of work as a private intelligence gatherer, as in her particular part of the Gas-Lit Empire women are not allowed to own businesses. This is a particularly big problem for her, as she is a fugitive of the Kingdom (more on that later) and is struggling to make the payments on Bessie, her houseboat. Now, it has long been my dream to live on a houseboat, so this was an incidental detail that helped get me onto Elizabeth’s side early on.
This is my floating idea of heaven right here.
Another incidental detail that really worked for me was the setting of much of the trilogy, which is largely based in the East Midlands. As someone who has spent countless hours in many of the cities as Elizabeth, such as Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, I felt a strong affinity for her. I felt a little thrill when she would mention a street I knew, and will admit to messing about with street view on Google Maps to see if I could work out which individual buildings she was visiting. We’re all in lockdown. We all have a lot of time to fill. Don’t judge me.
But these locations are not as they appear now. The aforementioned Gas-Lit Empire is presided over by the watchful eye of the Patent Office, who see to it that “unseemly science” is not developed, with the intention being to “protect and ensure the wellbeing of the common man.” Ned Ludd, smasher of knitting frames, is regarded as a hero, with a day named after him and everything. The upshot of all this is that, at least in what we regard as the UK, the world has stalled. Despite its noughties timeline, Victorian aesthetics and values are upheld, the lack of scientific development having a knock-on effect across culture. The UK is divided between the Anglo-Scottish Republic and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales, with varying habits and laws. The agents of the Patent Office are empowered to terrifying extent to stamp out any technology that might threaten the status quo. Through this web of politics and intrigue, Elizabeth finds herself unwillingly wrapped up in events which could shake the empire to its foundations.
Extensive world building of this sort can often seem a little exposition heavy, an info dump or several slowing the pace to a crawl. But that is not the case here, for two reasons. Firstly, the alternate history that Duncan has crafted is so interesting to read about that it rarely feels like it slows things down. Secondly, it is woven into the narrative so organically that it feels subtle and non-intrusive. Helpfully, the editions of the books which I read also came accompanied with a glossary of some of the key terms, which was helpful in gaining a greater understanding of the world. Should your edition be missing this glossary, you can find it on the excellent Gas-Lit Empire website, available here. However, it’s not necessary for enjoying this extremely well realised world, merely nice for added colour (and for lovers of the oft missed appendices).
Having established the world and character, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter draws the reader further in with its mystery laced plot and colourful supporting characters. Contracted by a wealthy aristocrat to track down her missing brother, Elizabeth finds herself entangled once more in the world she was forced to flee five years earlier, as she attempts to track down a travelling circus that might hold answers for her, all whilst evading capture by the nobleman who destroyed her life and means to take possession of her. The despised and all-powerful Patent Office are involved too, and Elizabeth’s repeated narrow escapes provide plenty of moments of thrilling tension. I quickly realised that I had made a foolish mistake in not reading more steampunk, displaying the kind of narrow mindedness that I should really have abandoned a long time ago. At least I was making up for lost time though.
Picking up just a few months after the events of the first book, Unseemly Science is where things take a decidedly darker turn, and it’s for this reason why it’s perhaps my favourite book of the trilogy. It also features more development of the relationship between Elizabeth and her student, Julia Swain, a character who manages to be earnest without being irritatingly naïve, as well as being a reliable friend and ally to Elizabeth. I loved watching the relationship begun in the first book blossom in this one, a relationship which is wholesome and heart-warming without ever becoming overly sweet. Confronted with some rather ghoulish sights in this instalment, Elizabeth’s bravery feels so much more believable than when so many other writers make characters brave. This is because Elizabeth acknowledges her fears, confronts them, then forges ahead with her plans, admitting her terror throughout. It makes her much more likeable and believable as a character than so many heroes or heroines, who just seem to be able to flick some kind of bravery switch that renders them incapable of acknowledging the danger and peril of a situation. Facing her fears and overcoming them makes her seem much braver than people who do heroic things that they felt no fear of. Elizabeth has a deep well of courage, almost as deep as her well of resourcefulness.
Courage and resourcefulness which she has relied on in the first two books, and continues to rely on in the third, The Custodian of Marvels (find me a trilogy with three better titles. I’ll wait). In the final part of the trilogy, things really start to come to a head, with much of the book revolving around a complex heist. And what do heists need? You guessed it, a crew. Like a steampunk Ocean’s Eleven, every component part of the plan must be performed perfectly by every member of the crew. I really, really want to be able to say that they need to fit together like clockwork here, but it’s just too obvious. Besides, clockwork doesn’t play any especially important part in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. More than ever, Elizabeth finds herself having to think on her feet, and whilst she might not always be one step ahead, she is always prepared.
With a likeable and believable heroine, a richly detailed world and an intricately crafted plot, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy is a consistently entertaining story. Consider me converted, and pass me my goggles.
You can find the entire trilogy in a handy collected eBook edition on Angry Robot's webstore, as well as myriad other delights. Thanks to Wyrd and Wonder for letting me get involved, and be sure to check out the other posts throughout May. Prepare to have your TBRs expanded!
Flaming phoenix artwork by Sujono Sujonu. Decorative phoenix by Tanantachai Sirival, Photograph by Zoe Ella Mumford on Unsplash.
Currently reading: City of Hate, Timothy S. Miller
Currently listening: V, Havok
Ollie - BA English and Creative Writing, MA Publishing.