After the first pages of Pip Ballantine’s and Tee Morris‘ Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel I was under the impression of heading into a hilarious and almost slapsticky Steampunk adventure. Eliza Braun and Wellington Books, the central protagonists, were simply too much of a missmatch and their initial “conversations” too comical. I had several good laughs.
Gradually, the lightheartedness leaves the novel, though. Keeping pace with the developments, the comical nature of their relationship fades more and more into the background. The pair gets to know each other better, and while still not fully understanding the other, they develop a grudging respect for their respective partner.
The story itself very soon becomes fast-paced and action packed. There are quite a few instances, in particular the excellent, almost swashbuckling duel scene in the London Opera, when I felt like having to hold onto my armchair. Still, humor never leaves the pages. Within the very same duel there is one notable simultaneous question between the duelists:
“Who is your seamstress?”
That one had me chuckling for hours afterwards.
But Phoenix Rising is not all good humored swashbuckling action. Not by far. The moment Books and Braun manage to infiltrate the Phoenix Society, the story gets noticeably, even drastically darker. Although there are hints earlier in the novel, telling of most nefarious events involving the society, I was relatively unprepared for the abysses of human behaviour and decadence within the Phoenix Society. Quite a twist.
I have to congratulate the authors on their ability of putting a number of those twists into the story. There are several very interesting turns over the course of the novel. Some are entertaining and give surprising insights into some characters, their history and the world, others drastically alter the reader’s perception of the main dramatis personae. I dislike putting spoilers into my reviews, so I will say no more.
The cast of characters is also one of the strong points of the novel. Every single one is believable, no matter how fleeting or detailed the description. Although Eliza and Wellington have some rather stereotypical traits, both have more hidden depth than one would suspect. Their antagonists are similarly fascinating. Sophia, Eliza’s nemesis, is Eliza’s spiritual twin, as Eliza herself notes, had they met in different circumstances, they would be the best of friends. The heads of the Phoenix Society range from scientist who has gone over the edge to complete and utter filth. Again I have to express my admiration for the creativity and writing-style of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. “Filth” does not even scratch the surface of what Lord Devane is. Of all the villains I have thus far encountered, he is by far the worst, and his claim of “superiority due to noble lineage” makes him even more disgusting. A villain you love to hate. Next to him, everyone other villain shines.
And shining brings me to the one aspect I found rather annoying. Eliza shines too much. Wellington, although highly skilled and with more talents than one might expect, has some issues. For one, he is haunted by his upbringing, further, he is awkward around women and afraid of guns. Eliza is bold, confident, brave, liberal, resourceful, rich and a benefactor to the poor, beautiful and through her we learn how much more progressive New Zealand is compared to Britain. She even had Maori tutors for her martial skills. Her one negative trait is that she is quite a vamp. But this is something easily forgiven since she uses her womanly powers only in service of the Empire and never crosses certain boundaries. She is too good. I got the impression she is the authors‘ favourite brainchild and thus got only good things.
But this is the only point of contention I have with Phoenix Rising. Other than this one point, the novel leaves nothing to be desired. Phoenix Rising is a real page-turner. The novel makes you laugh, gets your adrenalin pumping, makes you laugh again and fills you with the urge to drag the villains out from between the pages and give them a dose of their own medicine.
Phoenix Rising gets nine out of ten Zeppelins.
What is even better: Although Phoenix Rising does not end in a real cliffhanger, there are enough ends left open to warrant a sequel. Eliza and Sophia might yet become friends…
I am looking forward to a sequel.
A final note: The "token German" of the novel is, of course, a brute. A torturer in the employ of the Kaiser. He only gets mentioned retrospectively. In any case: Prussia under the Hohenzollern (the noble house which would eventually become the house of the German emperors) was the second nation in continental Europe, after Sweden, to abolish torture. This happened in 1754. The German Empire was not fertile ground for that sort of attrocities, this was the domain of the Third Reich.