REVIEW: Pheonix Rising

Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris
Pheonix Rising (Ministry of peculiar occurrences #1)
Harper Voyager
april 26, 2011

Blurb via Goodreads:

Evil is most assuredly afoot—and Britain’s fate rests in the hands of an alluring renegade . . . and a librarian.

These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing, washing up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences—the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and unsettling—will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest . . . and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Wellington Books, along with her into the perilous fray.

For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun—he with his encyclopedic brain and she with her remarkable devices—must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot . . . or see England fall to the Phoenix!

I had a devil of a good time with this book, whilst at the same, or rather, at times, being a tad bored with it. Steampunk has been really hit or miss for me since it came back on the reading scene with a publishing frenzy–fueled vengeance several years ago. I understand that it’s not much of anything like steampunk of yore and to this day I see other readers questioning what the genre is. I can’t answer that exactly of steampunk of yore, but steampunk of today is comprised of two pretty basic yet necessary elements: a. steam technology that is an inherent part of the worldbuilding and culture shown, and b. a person or group of people attempting to rise up against some kind of totalitarian force or government. A lot of it seems to take place centrally in England, kind of a England Saves the World theme, but it’s usually at least in some scope inclusive of the whole wide world, as in, whatever goal the good or bad folks are trying to achieve, the whole world will feel the effects. Yes, there can be mad scientists running amok and dirigibles in the sky, but a spotting or two of such elements aren’t enough alone to make steampunk steampunk.

That, at least, is what I’ve learned about steampunk. Let’s review. You need: steam technology that is actually integrated and sooper bad asswipes trying to reign supreme. And somebody steps in to save the day. Somehow. With steamy things and adventure. Got that? It’s a jolly good time when done right.

Pheonix Rising gets off to a pretty good start. Right off we’ve got some good action, some cool characters and the main dude isn’t too wishy washy like they have a tendency to be in steampunk with their very proper “Well, I’ll say!” and snobbish hanky waving-shitnannery. Although, after reading a bit, our main Man of Steam, Wellington Books, does scream high and shrill during one street chase while riding inside a carriage. Actually, he and the Partner He Doesn’t Want at All, Eliza Braun, have a nice role reversal going on. She’s the daredevil, leaps-before-thinking (seemingly) field agent always ready to let off a bomb, while Books (aka, Welly, Eliza’s favorite nickname for him) is the very proper, reserved archivist intent on bringing as much order and dignity to their adventures as possible. Sometimes their innate and drastic differences really ratchets up the tension and fun of the story, other times, Books really drags it down.

Let’s talk about Eliza first. She’s from New Zealand, so she has the whole “colonial stigma” attached to her, and her brash ways don’t earn her any respect. In fact, her brash ways of recent times – rescuing Books from an Antarctic prison cell – earn her a demotion of sorts when she’s yanked from the field to partner with books down in the archives of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences  (the book’s equivalent to the whole James Bond organization). She’s to learn to curb her wild ways while learning how to archive dusty papers and objects or by golly it’s her job on  the line. From the beginning of her internment, as she sees it, she is a smart ass, willfully negligent of anything Books says in terms of the Archive and dismissive of anything not to do with her plans for revenge. See, she’s recently had a different, previous partner turn up dead, and she’s determined to find out what happened, at any cost.

Meanwhile, there’s Books, who’s been moldering away in the depths of the Ministry, dealing with damp dampness and being generally unappreciated by the whole mess of agents doing their undercover thing for the Crown. The lone librarian of all the Ministry’s important papers and antiquities gathered from past cases, he’s got a large, seemingly unenthusiastic task. And Ms. Braun has definitely upset his ordered little world. In spite of himself, he’s dragged into whatever game she refuses to ignore and is soon enmeshed in more adventure than he ever wanted to have in five minutes let alone a lifetime. But he’s got something to prove, too. That archivists are smarter than the rest of the Ministry thinks, and maybe he’s got more inside him than he originally thought possible.

Pheonix Rising follows a general path most steampunk these days seems to. A male/female partnership of vastly differing backgrounds takes on a Dangerous Task in order to save Queen and Country and probably the world, too. On the surface, it like, Great, yet another. But sort of how I’ve really enjoyed Steven Harper’s Clockwork Empire so much and so far, I really came to enjoy the dynamics between Books and Eliza. It takes her a little while to get Books out of his shell, and when he emerges, wow, he is fierce. But in his own, neat, ordered way. He and Eliza change one another, she learning that quiet, unassuming archivists can lend a lot more to a dangerous situation than originally believed. That maybe it is best sometimes to pull back instead of pulling the grenade pin.

They build up to a very satisfying tension together in several scenes, though at times Books, who seems to get the most depth-filled development of the two, dragged the pace down a little. He’s got daddy issues and these clouded the book at times with a bit of a repetitiveness that seems all to easy for authors to slip into. I know that him dealing in his head with this issue was meant to show his growth but it was a little too much and too expected after a really short while. Probably because Books’ dad was a rich lord, racist and, sorry, but those types you don’t need spoonful after spoonful of to get the point. Not to mention, Books has all these mental conversations where he here’s and sometimes talks back to his dad and that was really annoying after a while. I admit I began to skim these passages. You can and still get the point that they were part of what developed Books fairly well by The End.

Eliza is such a fun, balls-to-the-wall woman. She’s independent, surprising at every turn and I never found her character repetitive or droll. In fact, her fallacies, mainly being too quick to jump, were kind of endearing because perfection in a character gets old quicker than anything. She thinks Books is way too green an agent for the field, but she learns eventually that in order for him to grow, she’s got to allow him to. At the same time, her expertise in highly dangerous situations makes her an easy character to admire. There’s a torture scene that is particularly interesting to read, and I appreciated it because the authors allowed Eliza to still be an empowered woman as opposed to merely a victim. And it wasn’t an easy situation for her, I wasn’t sure at all how it would turn out. She is very much the Female in a Man’s World type of character, but it doesn’t define her because she doesn’t let it. I liked her immensely.

So aside from some pacing issues – there were side characters that weren’t particularly interesting that had their own passages occasionally – and a main character that was at times a tad boring (Books and his daddy issues), this was a really fun read. I was held in suspense many a time and I love that I couldn’t be sure who would come out victorious. I made the mistake of buying the second book in the series first, then having to get book one also. I can say now this was a happy mistake and and glad to have found another steampunk series that, if it must follow a basic steampunk formula of today, takes that formula and presents it in a totally fun, adventurous way. The writing is good, the steam technology is not the most present I’ve ever read so far, but it’s definitely a part of the worldbuilding. It checks all the steampunk boxes nicely. On to the next!

Rating: Four Scoops

Series order:

  • Pheonix Rising
  • The Janus Affair
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  1. I’m a huge fan of this series! I really enjoyed this book awhile back when I read it but found myself even more pleased with the 2nd book. I really enjoy Steven Harper’s series as well although I still haven’t read the 2nd book yet. Soon I hope. Great review and I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this one as well!

    • Hello there, fellow fan! :D So excited to see another Harper fan! I’ve read book two but never reviewed it and now would probably have to reread it again before doing so. BUT – it was pretty good. I have the third book now on my e-reader and need to get to it ASAP.

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