Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, Book #1
By Philippa Ballantine & Tee Morris
Author’s Website: http://www.pjballantine.com/
Review brought to you by Verushka
Steampunk is not my first choice of genres, with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate ‘Soulless’ being my first introduction to it. So, a steampunk novel is going to have to work hard to keep me interested and Phoenix Rising succeeds admirably. The climax of the novel might have given me flashbacks to Branagh in the unfortunate Wild Wild West, but that was short-lived, and also a movie (yes, I watch too many movies that have nothing to do with the rich, engaging and absolutely enjoyable prose of this novel).
Eliza Braun, a field agent is introduced to us mid-mission on her way to rescue Wellington Books, an Archivist at the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a clandestine organisation dedicated to investigating, well, peculiar and supernatural occurrences for Queen and country. Books is a bookworm, happier stuck in the Archive of the Ministry, filing unsolved cases and ignoring the voice of his father in the back of his mind and his upper-crust upbringing.
Eliza is his complete opposite, a fiery and brash colonial (a New Zealander, and proud of it, much like Pip Ballantine, one of the authors. As an Australian, the references did make laugh out loud). Her attitude gets her in trouble more often than not, despite her talent as a field agent and this is what lands her in what is probably the most boring place in the Ministry to her, the Archive as Book’s assistant.
What is interesting though, is that Eliza begins the book by keeping a secret from her rescue mission of Books, concerning Books from him, and by the end of the book, Books in turn does the same with her. By then though, readers are fully aware that neither is what they seem, and what I think is a joy to read is that when these characters do learn from each other, and about each other causes them both to develop further as characters, when too often things like that can be forgotten within a novel. It isn’t the most original set-up, but the authors’ talent and skill elevates what is a common plot to something better.
The elements of steampunk that have always fascinated me, and all are present in this book: the Ministry, with their gadgets and their secret agents in need of gadgets, not to mention a secret Phoenix society hell bent on destruction and power. Everything is primed to show off some remarkable incorporations of modern tech that had me laughing as I was reading this on the train to work.
The gems in this book though are Eliza and Books, both as fabulously alive within these pages, as they are opposites. The book takes readers to both aspects of London reflected in their characters – the working class pubs where Eliza feels at home, and the upper-crust of society where Books knows he can fit in, but might not feel quiet at home. I should mention though, as much as Eliza loves London, she is colonial and proud of it, and longs for New Zealand. The book works hard in making each overcome their pre-conceptions of each other, but again the authors’ skill saved a simple plot tactic from being boring. It is fun watching Books fluster at the depths to Eliza which brings me to something else – the cover does create a misconception in regards to the story, for it is Eliza and Books’ story, not just her’s.
Where the book begins with Eliza taking charge of the action admirably, Books is merely on a slow burn it seems, growing the most through the novel and thus far sharing a part of his character that fascinates me more even though this adventure begins because of Eliza and her relationship with her former partner, now driven mad.
Which brings me to the case – once banished to the Archive, Eliza finds a clue that leads her to her former partner in Bedlam, an asylum and onto a case of brutal murders and drags Books along despite himself. In the end, they find themselves trying to stop the Phoenix Society from over-throwing the government, while still trying to keep their jobs with the Ministry.
I foresee many, many elaborate tales and excuses in this pair’s future in the next books in this series!
The book is not without its weaknesses. While a fluctuating point of view is one of my pet peeves, for two characters that are treated with equal importance within the novel, the authors achieve a good balance. Where the writing gets weaker, is the POVs breaks to other characters, several other characters in fact that took me out of the world of two between Eliza and Books.