Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the second of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books, The Janus Affair. As you may remember in my review of Phoenix Rising I said that the book felt like a bit of a mess with a lot of plot threads that weren't explained or didn't seem to go anywhere. Unfortunately this book is also mostly a muddled mess and almost goes into the territory of crime fiction that inspired Father Roland Knox to write rules for Fair Play Mysteries. In 1928. Overall the result was fairly disappointing and I'm left thinking that the rest of the books in this series aren't worth my time.

So what exactly is the plot? The main story centers around the disappearances of prominent leaders of the suffrage movement in England. Women are disappearing in bright and mysterious flashes of light and never seen again, which is causing panic and fear among the ranks of the suffragists. Eliza Braun, being a supporter and friend of the suffragists herself, has made it her personal mission to investigate their disappearance and has brought along Archivist Wellington Books for the investigation. There are also some other plots going on but they're not terribly well developed and left so frustratingly vague that it feels like the authors just aren't really sure of what direction they want to take the series.

Let's start with the Maestro who is a very vague and mysterious figure. What we do know is that he's been behind the events of Phoenix Rising and is involved in setting the events of Janus Affair in motion. Furthermore he has an animosity for the Ministry and seeks to shut it down or otherwise control it and gain access to artifacts stored in its vaults. Beyond that we really don't know what's up with him. Who he is, what he's trying to accomplish, they're all left frustratingly vague. I get that he's kind of a shadowy, mysterious Big Bad, but I have no idea how dangerous this guy is because I don't know what he's trying to accomplish.

Among the other things left frustratingly vague are the backstories of our main characters. We get more details about Braun and Books. Books at least is fairly straightforward and we learn that his father put him through a strict training regimen to turn Books into a sort of super-soldier in some misguided attempt to create a horde of them for Britain. Braun's backstory is explained, but actually only ends up raising further questions. We're told that Braun was exiled from New Zealand by the prime minister and the event involved Kiwi suffragists, but what exactly was this horrible thing that caused Eliza to be exiled from her home country remains unknown. It's referenced but never explicitly mentioned and I almost wonder if the writers forgot to put an explanation in.

Most annoyingly for me, a majority of the book is spent on a red herring explanation for why the suffragists are disappearing. Now, red herrings are obviously a major part of mystery literature but the book spends so much time and effort on this red herring that the plot involving the actual culprits suffers as a result. I felt like the authors should have focused and developed their actual antagonists more than this red herring.

So finally, let's get to the antagonists. I'm actually being kind of spoilery here so if you'd like to avoid that skip ahead. Okay, everybody who doesn't want to see this gone? Good. So, the villains of this book are a set of identical twins from India who follow this crazy mash-up of Hinduism and Christianity and believe that women's suffrage is an offense to Kali and Christ so they've been kidnapping prominent suffragists with an electronic teleporter device. And then they want to start a holy war. I think. The reason I say I think is because Books and Braun sort of assume that the two of them want to start a holy war but the villains don't really explain why they're doing what they're doing beyond, ''God wills it.'' Now why is this villain problematic? Well it directly violates rules 5 and 10 of Father Knox's guidelines which is either a reference so obscure to be brilliant or just dumb, and unfortunately I think it falls into the latter category.

For those of you unfamiliar with the rules, #5 states that ''No Chinaman must figure in the story'' which was a critique at the time of mystery novels always having some scary and mysterious oriental villain as the bad guy. By making the villains be a pair of extremely religious Indian women, I feel like it very much falls into having the bad guy be a scary foreigner who does things because they're foreign rather than because of any real motivation. Rule #10 states ''Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.'' Now in the strictest definition of fairness, the writers did foreshadow the utility of twins earlier in the book, but it disappeared again so quickly and came back with absolutely no explanation or warning or even a suggestion that you should expect it that it feels like a clear violation of the rule.

It may be unfair for me to judge this book by a somewhat arbitrary set of rules for ''Fair Play'' murder mysteries, but I feel like there's an important point to be made. In this case, we spend so much time with no real information or guidance on who exactly the culprits are and, as I said, spend so much time on a red herring, that it feels like downright shoddy writing when the real villains are revealed. If this book was more of a satire of Victorian literature, specifically crime literature, then I might be willing to consider it an elaborate reference but I find that probability rather doubtful in all honesty.

Overall this book was a disappointment. The plot is tangled, confused, misdirected, and then so out of nowhere that it becomes just one big confusing mess. We still have no idea what the plans of the Maestro, the big bad for the series, is plotting beyond some general evilness which is frustrating. Things that should be shown or explained simply aren't, which makes the book feel much more incomplete.

- Kalpar

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