The first novel of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, Phoenix Rising, starts with a bang, literally with a bang. We are quickly introduced to the Ministry’s Archivist, Wellington Thornhill Books Esquire, who has been kidnapped and about to be tortured by the evil organisation, the House of Esher. The House however, are thwarted in their attempt to extract information from Books by the feisty, dynamite loving, Kiwi and Ministry agent Miss Eliza D Braun. Braun disobeys a direct order by saving Books and in the process blows up the House of Esher’s Antarctic headquarters with her tool of choice, dynamite. In the chapter aptly named, ‘Chapter 2 – In Which Our Plucky Pepperpot Eliza Braun Must Pay the Piper for Her Feats of Derring-Do!’ the ‘colonial pepperpot’ soon finds she is relegated to the Archives to work with the fussy, aristocratic, Books. Through these opening chapters, Ballantine and Morris demonstrate from the beginning their unique ability for light hearted and witty prose.
The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is a covert organisation that solves mysterious and ‘peculiar’ cases on behalf of the government to protect Queen and country, with the Archives being the library of all the cases and a number of nifty gadgets and treasures. The Archives is used by the authors as the device to introduce some of the minor characters such as Dr Sound and the brash Australian agent, Douglas Campbell, who play small parts in the plot. There are short intermittent chapters focussed on Dr Sound and the ‘restricted’ area of the Archives and a brief introduction to the Duke of Sussex, who entraps Agent Campbell to spy on Dr Sound, although the reason behind this is not clear at this point in the story. The Archives is also used to reinforce the steampunk theme as the home of a number of Welly’s ingenious inventions, namely the Thames powered ‘analytical engine’ or computer that not only retrieves cases information and objects but also makes a delicious cup of Earl Grey tea!
The pair are at odds for the first part of the story until Wellington (or Welly as Eliza, likes to call him) discovers that Eliza has been trying to investigate why her previous partner, the handsome and dashing Harry Thorne, went missing during a mission and when found was promptly sent to Bedlam and then later murdered. She uncovers that other agents have also gone missing investigating the same case and found dead either drained of blood or missing bones. This scene is one example of how the authors unique way of introducing the macabre with amusing scenes and dialogue between the two main characters. This gives the story some depth and makes is very readable.
Ballantine and Morris introduce some truly funny scenes to lighten the mood and to build the relationship between the two heroes. Once such scene involves Welly assisting the very drunk Miss Braun to remove her knife proof corset after a night out in a pub, and in the other Eliza engages Harry’s assassin and Welly’s kidnapper, Sophia de la Morte, in a full on battle, on the stage and during an opera. The latter scene has the reader both laughing at what is happening and worried about what might happen to Eliza. It is in this process of investigating the case, and almost getting killed several times, that our two heroes get to know each other and the reader discovers that these characters are more than just one dimensional stereotypes.
We also meet Alice, Eliza’s housekeeper, who has two artificial, steam powered legs, and the Ministry of Seven, a group of street kids who Harry, now deceased, and Eliza recruited to assist with their investigations. These characters provide background and some very funny dialogue with both Eliza and Welly.
The agents end up risking life and limb by infiltrating the Phoenix Society, and of course solve the mystery that led to Harry Thorne’s death. To tell any more about the final chapters and the conclusion of the story would just give too much away. Needless to say, gun fights, fisticuffs and explosions abound as our two plucky heroes save the day and solve the mystery.
The first time I read this book I found it slightly difficult to get into, although I quickly started to love the characters. This was my first foray into steampunk and may have slightly attributed to my difficulty engaging with the book. The dialogue between Welly and Eliza is especially witty and sets the backdrop for their growing attraction to each other. There were a number of instances of laughing out loud in public over some quip from Welly or Eliza. Ballantine and Morris create likeable characters in a backdrop of steampunk Victorian, England that I grew to love with every passing page. I was lucky that I only discovered Phoenix Rising a few months before the second novel, The Janus Affair, was released so I didn’t have long to wait until I got another fix of my new favourite characters, Braun and Books.
BOOKS IN SERIES ORDER
- Phoenix Rising
- The Janus Affair
BUY YOUR COPY