I think this is only the second steampunk novel I’ve ever actually read. But steampunk is very much one of those genres that you don’t need to have read to have a good idea of what to expect. And, well, this was indeed what I was expecting. But not entirely. There were odds and ends that made me go “huh!”, when I reached them.
The general premise is Let’s Solve Crime in Victorian England. It’s a good, solid premise. Many have done it before, but there’s a lot of potential in the “crime solving” bit to prevent too much same-old same-old. Our hero is a dashing and experienced agent from Her Majesty’s Bureau of Clandestine Affairs (I do like the name) and he is assisted by a determined young lady from the… I can’t actually remember the precise name, which was less exciting, but the paranormal-y bureau. Adventures are had, mysteries solved, and plots against the safety of the Empire and the World are thwarted. Derring-do may even occur.
Add to this, lots of technology powered, in fact, by steam. And Martians (the title rather gives that away) who are technologically superior, but seem also keen on steam and rather mechanical contraptions, as opposed to fancy swanky electronic gizmos. Again, unsurprising, given the setting. They have sort of allied themselves with the British Empire, and bring technology and medical advances in trade.
But wait! Their ambassador to earth has died in mysterious circumstances! Could this be the end of friendly relations between Mars and Earth…?! Can our heroes solve the crime before the slightly artificial deadline, and prevent a calamity that could destabilise the balance of power throughout the solar system…?! Can they foil this fiendish plot in time!?
I want to read a lot of this in a more dramatic voice than I am able to muster. It is a Very Silly Book.
That being said, I quite like a silly book. I wrote about the benefits of good trash when I posted about The Red Queen, and that’s still true now. This is never going to win prizes for stunning literary excellence, but that’s not what it’s doing and, like The Red Queen, it knows it. So it revels in its silliness. It accepts it, and turns it up to eleven… especially in the details. And that’s kind of where this book excels. All the details, the tone, the dialogue, everything fits absolutely marvellously in the over-the-top ridiculousness of what it’s aiming for. Baker hasn’t put a word wrong. The characters are the precisely perfect balance between caricature and actually worthwhile reading – Blackwood is a loyal and determined servant of Victoria and the Empire, but without straying his dialogue into saying anything cringey; Lady Sophia is not your average stereotyped Victorian lady, she goes adventuring and solves crime, but neither is she so obviously a modern woman in a corset that sometimes these things end up as. I could go on. The New Scotland Temple police (run by actual Templars). The Bureau of Clandestine Affairs (headed by “Grandfather” with his steam-powered legs). Spring-heeled Jack the fiendish criminal tormenting London and sensationalised in the press. The Greater Exhibition (like the first one, only MORE)… Baker has thrown himself into the genre and got every single little thing precisely right.
The plot too is pretty perfect. The pacing is excellent, it’s a good crime story, with the reveals coming at all the right moments, and the villain being suitably nefarious (slightly caricatured, but not too much) and the danger suitably all-encompassing, while still being realistic to the setting. Things do come to a hurried conclusion at the end, but a reasonable hurried conclusion. It’s not a case of 100 pages of plot smushed into 20, more that everything has drawn together and been neatly closed off. There’s very much a vibe of… not Sherlock Holmes (whatever the book cover says) but how Holmes gets interpreted on the big screen, generally. Holmes with more… I don’t know… drama and excitement and energy. I say this as someone who loves actual Sherlock Holmes, by the by. But the originals are quite slow-paced and dry, compared to the explosiony sort of style you get in the more recent film versions, for example. This has some of the feel of the originals, but less heavily biased towards interesting plot and more towards things happening dramatically. Which makes it really excellent light, untaxing reading.
With that all being said, I’m not certain I actually enjoy steampunk, as a genre. I can see that this book is an excellent example of steampunk. It’s really good fun, and some of the little surprises (vague Cthulhu references, for a start) are sweet, or clever or just funny… but I don’t know. As a whole thing, I think it’s too pleased with itself. I think I’d rather read a detective story set in actual Victorian London than in Victorian London but with lasers. I liked reading this, and I might buy the sequels if I see them in a shop and go “hey, why not”, but it’s not selling me desperately to be super keen. I guess we’re back to “it’s a Very Silly Book” and “light but fun”. I enjoyed reading it. I really really did. But not really because I liked what it was doing. But it pulled me along effortlessly, and sucked me in… and that’s definitely worth something.