Thursday, May 14, 2015

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, by David Barnett

Okay, everybody, as promised last week, this is the first review of Kalpar's Steampunk Month....three weeks. Whatever. And we begin with the book responsible for this little diversion: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon. Some of my long-time readers may remember that about a year ago I reviewed a book titled Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, the first book in what I'm now calling the Gideon Smith Adventures. Anyway, the first book ended with quite a few loose ends and I was at the time uncertain if the series was going to continue or if this was meant to be a continuing adventure sort of thing. Fortuitously, while perusing a book store some time ago I came across the book I'm reviewing today, which is the second installment. And thanks to me finally deciding to go look it up, it appears that a third book Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper is scheduled to come out later this year. But, first thing's first, let's talk about Brass Dragons.

Attention Dear and Gentle Readers, due to the serial nature of these books spoilers are a tragic necessity of this review. However, I shall endeavor to keep them to a minimum.

At the end of the last book the clockwork girl Maria and the brass dragon Apep had been stolen and taken across the Atlantic ocean to America. After a brief respite Gideon Smith, the new Hero of the Empire, has been tasked by the Crown to retrieve both and ensure the safety of the Empire. Gideon's adventures take him to the skyscrapers of New York, the plains of Texas, and the hills of California, with plenty of adventures and challenges along the way. And a fantastic cast of supporting characters and cameos come along as well, ensuring there isn't a dull moment. Rowena Fanshawe, the fabled Belle of the Airways, Louis Cockayne, Yankee gunman and scoundrel, and Aloysious Bent, journalist of dubious utility. Throw in a steam-powered cyborg Charles Darwin, a very angry Tyrannosaurus rex, a Zorro expy known as El Chupacabra, and, I kid you not, a Japanese steampunk mecha, and I don't know whether to be mad at Barnett for throwing every trope he can in there or applaud at the sheer audacity.

This book manages to be another fantastic, fun, and exciting pulp adventure. And as anyone who's read this blog long enough can attest, I am an absolute sucker for pulp adventures. Especially when the title is in the format of Main Character and X. I know I said in my review of the first book that I had been a little frustrated with all the references and characters thrown into the story, but on rereading it I found I actually kind of liked it. Sort of like Barnett took a bunch of nerdy awesome things and put them together to create a new, bigger, awesome thing. I did feel towards the end that there was so much stuff thrown into this book that a lot of it really wasn't as developed as well as I would have liked, but that's not really my main problem with this book. And believe me, I have a problem.

As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, albeit sort of in an obscure fashion, was that Maria suffered from some really bad vaguely sexist tropes. Specifically Maria made a really big deal, at least in her internal monologue, about how she had occasionally been a prostitute in her past life. It had bothered me that there had been a lot of emphasis on that specifically, when our glimpse of Maria's past life showed she had really only done it from time to time when she was a few shillings short for the rent that month. And honestly, can we judge someone doing what the can to get by? My point is, in Maria's past life she had been a shopgirl who occasionally slept with people for money because she's got to pay rent. No big deal. In the second book almost every description of Maria's past life was, "She was a prostitute. Oh. And also a shopgirl. But totally a prostitute." Obviously not in those words, but it seemed like Barnett had some weird fixation on prostitution or something. The fact that Steamtown, one of the main locations in this novel, has a very large prostitution industry does not help my concern as well.

In addition, Maria spends a lot of the book as little more than a "Sexy Lamp". For my readers unfamiliar with the term, "Sexy Lamp" is used to refer to a female character in a work who is so irrelevant that she does nothing to affect the plot beyond perhaps being something for the male characters to fight over, that she could be replaced with a sexy lamp and the story wouldn't change at all. I actually calculated this and Maria spends precisely 64% of the book unconscious, doing absolutely nothing. Nearly two-thirds of the book she could be replaced with a sexy lamp and nothing would change. And in the remaining third of the book she just doesn't get a lot of development as a character. There's her love story with Gideon, but that also feels poorly developed and I found myself wondering why they were in love with each other. In the first book they really only spend a few scenes together and a lot of it is Gideon being awkward about her being made of gears and pistons instead of flesh and blood. It's almost as if the plot is saying "Hey. These two belong together. I HAVE DECREED IT!" And with Maria spending two-thirds of the book as a sexy lamps does absolutely nothing to help develop their love story. It just feels forced.

And the reason I take such issue with all of these sexist tropes tied to and floating around Maria is because I know, I know Barnett can write strong female characters because he has three between the two books! You've got Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a charming yet powerful vampire, determined to avenge the death of her husband, Dracula. Rowena Fanshawe, a gutsy airship pilot who doesn't let herself be restrained by other people's expectations of how a woman's supposed to act and embraces the freedom that the sky brings. And in the new book Inez Batiste Palomo, a rapier wielding Spaniard determined to defend her home and inspire her people. I will admit that all three of these kind of fall under the Action Girl trope, but I'm actually kind of okay with that because these books are pulp adventures and so almost everybody gets in on the action. Just stands to reason. So it just makes you wonder why, why on earth is Maria so poorly developed? The disparity between her and the other characters is so pronounced that it really bothers me. Maybe Maria will get more development in later books, but I really can't say that right now.

My only other complaint, and that's because I'm someone who looks at maps, is the blatant errors of geography made on the map of the United States in the front of this book. San Antonio, Nuevo Laredo, and New Orleans are precisely where they're supposed to be. However, San Francisco (which is now Nyu Edo) which is explicitly to be stated where it is in real life, is suddenly a hundred miles north of where it should be. The worst offense, though, is New York City suddenly appearing on the coast of North Carolina. And the book says New York is located on the island of Manhattan. Which last I checked was located in New York State, a good five hundred miles north. Listen, I hate to be utterly pedantic about this since I really like maps, but this is really basic geography that can easily be researched. And no, I will not stop complaining about it.

I did like this book, I really did. Although the sheer abundance of tropes and references did make me want to alternately congratulate or slap Barnett. I just got really frustrated with Maria being such a poorly developed character, compared to practically anyone else in the cast. I would suggest any fans of pulp adventures read this book, though. Despite its flaws.

- Kalpar

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