Thursday, December 22, 2016

Phoenix Rising, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the first in a series about the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, Phoenix Rising, a steampunk series by Pip Ballantine. I was drawn to this series initially because it seemed to have multiple things I was interested in, namely steampunk and mysterious government agencies that deal with the unusual. (There is a reason I am a huge fan of Warhouse 13.) This book actually started off pretty promisingly with one of our main characters, Wellington Books, Esq., chained to a dungeon wall and about to be tortured by the nefarious House of Usher. Only to be rescued by a timely explosion set by Agent Eliza Braun who has a fondness for weapons and dynamite. Unfortunately the book kind of goes downhill from there and becomes a jumbled mess. As this is the first in a series it sets up conflict for later books, but I feel like the plot created for this introductory novel is haphazard, thrown together, and ultimately unsatisfying.

The setup is classic buddy cop which, if we're being completely honest, works. Wellington Books is the brains (probably why his last name is Books), typical strait-laced individual from England with an aristocratic heritage. Eliza Braun is the muscle, further emphasized by the reader pronouncing her last name ''brawn'' instead of ''brown'', which is what I thought it would be but I'm a Germanophile. She's a bit of a loose cannon, solving problems with explosives, and is far more relaxed coming from the frontier colony of New Zealand. Now these two different personalities are going to be forced to work together! Yeah, I know, it's a very stereotyped buddy cop, odd couple sort of set up that's been done so many times it's practically cliché. But. It works. And to be honest I like the characters so that's at least something the book has working for it.

The problem mostly seems to be, as I said, with the plot. The book starts out with Wellington being rescued by Eliza from the House of Usher, the long-standing enemies of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Since Wellington is the chief archivist for the Ministry and privy to numerous secrets he's obviously a valuable prize, but what exactly the House of Usher wants with him is never really explored. In fact the House of Usher pretty much disappears from the novel after that. There are two scenes where they show up, but in both cases they die very quickly and what exactly their plans are remains unknown. This is frustrating to me because I feel like the first novel in a series shoulders the biggest burden in establishing the universe of the series. So I'm left asking questions like, ''Who is the House of Usher? What do they want? What are their goals? Why are they enemies of the Ministry? Are they just big Edgar Allen Poe fans?'' None of these questions get answered and it's just really frustrating to have some people you think are going to be villains but are hardly in the story at all.

The main antagonist for this book is the Society of the Phoenix whose goals are also...poorly defined. Wellington and Eliza are investigating an abandoned case that Eliza's former partner was working on before he disappeared and then turned up stark raving mad. They think there's a connection to grisly murders where people showed up either completely flayed, completely exsanguinated, or completely de-boned. ...sorry, I don't know of a fancy word meaning all of somebody's bones are gone. But why these murders are happening and how they're connected to the Society is vague even to the characters and they spend considerable time stumbling around in the dark. For most of the book we're not really sure what the Society is or what their goals are either. There's some sort of vague mention of wanting to preserve the British Empire but it remains mostly vague. The book is set in the 1890's when the British Empire is still at its height, if being challenged by newer powers on the scene, so why they think the empire's in decline remains elusive. Also how they intend to maintain the power of the Empire is also vague.

And on the one hand, it's okay for the characters to not know a lot as they're investigating a mystery, but by the end I'd have appreciated some more detail. The Society's evil plan is eventually revealed but why they're doing what they're doing is never explained. It's all very well and fine to build a giant death ray, army of mechanical monsters, or killer cheeses, but it's helpful to have a reason. It's almost like the Society was bound to fail because they weren't entirely sure what they were doing either, which doesn't make for terribly good villains.

There are also numerous plot threads which are left for later books to pick up, which are slightly more infuriating because there are so many of them. First of all, there are forces within the British government who wish to shut the Ministry down and are engaging in a clandestine campaign for that purpose. Secondly, there's an unknown force, pulling the strings of possibly both the Society and the House of Usher, but what they're planning is still frustratingly vague beyond being bad guys. And then there are aspects of both Eliza and Wellington's backstories that are mentioned but not really explained and I'm sure will be gone into detail later. For example, why is Eliza exiled from New Zealand? Is serving in England really an exile for her? What's that all about? Also why is Wellington afraid of guns? I assume it's tied to his military service which is referenced in passing but it was mentioned to briefly I actually thought I'd imagined it until the authors brought it back again. There are just so many things tossed in that it makes the story that much more of a jumble.

Ultimately this book's plot is a mess. As interesting as the characters are, the motivations of the villains remain vague and ambiguous for most of the book and that makes the stakes unknown. We don't know if it's the fate of the world or just the fate of Mrs. Miggins Pie Shop. I mean, both could be bad but I think the fate of the world slightly outweighs the fate of the pie shop. I honestly don't know if I'll continue listening to this series or not because of how downright confusing everything was.

- Kalpar

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