Friday, April 8, 2011

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

HarperCollins/Voyager, ISBN 9780062049766, May 2011

It's sometime in the late 1890s--late Victorian London, and Wellington Thornhill Books, Archivist for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is kidnapped, whisked away to an Antarctic stronghold for, ahem, questioning, and is rescued by Ministry field agent Eliza D. Braun. (Yes, Books and Braun, but really, you have to forgive the authors for it, or at least I do!) Alas, Eliza is a bit free with her use of explosives in the process, and blowing up the headquarters of the House of Usher without actually eliminating the organization was not included in her instructions. Upon returning to London, she is assigned to assist Books in the Archives. This is Ministry director Dr. Sound's version of killing two birds with one stone: Eliza Braun is too unpredictable and resistant to orders in the field, and Books is starting to think of the Archives as his.

If the existence of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, combined with the dirigible that carried Books and Braun away from Antarctica, were not enough evidence, we quickly encounter proof that this Victorian England is not our Victorian England. Books has a working Difference Engine that he built himself, and has programmed for all manner of useful tasks. The Archives are filled not just with accounts of solves and unsolved cases, but artifacts--a map to the city of El Dorado, and a Zulu amulet that does truly dangerous things, among others. The agents, including Books, wear rings that can be tracked by the Emergency Tracking System.

Braun is not really cut out to be an archivist, and she's haunted by one of the first cases she worked on after arriving in England from New Zealand. Known as the Rag and Bone Murders, the case revolved around bodies found dead and mutilated in a variety of gruesome ways: one drained of all blood, another with all bones removed, yet another with the skin completely removed. She and her first partner, Harrison Thorne, found no solution and the investigation became increasingly dangerous, until they were ordered to stop, and the unsolved case consigned to the Archives. But Harry didn't drop the case, and eventually disappeared for a week, only to turn up near a factory, completely mad.

Braun can't let the case go, either, and inevitably sucks the very staid, very proper, very not-a-field-agent Books into the case with her. And that's when things really get dangerous, as they clash with a secret society with its own plans for England, agents of the House of Usher still intent upon questioning Books, a deadly female assassin, and the mad genius who's behind everything--maybe! They repeatedly escape by the skin of their teeth, due to Braun's way with weapons and explosives, or Books' way with machinery and codes. And when the final showdown comes, if they want to survive, they have to get over their mutual friction and incomprehension, and start trusting each other.

This is a great romp through a Victorian England that's just off enough to be intriguing, and I found Books and Braun rapidly growing on me. The pace is lively, and the authors keep the reader guessing.

A minor detail that will amuse those who remember a certain tv show: At a very dangerous and shocking house party, Books and Braun meet a couple named Collins. Barnabus and Angelique Collins. This doesn't appear to have any significance beyond the private amusement of the authors, although since this appears to be the start of a series, who knows? Maybe we'll find out the Collinses have relatives in Maine.

Recommended for a good, light-hearted, adventurous romp.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.