Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris,
Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: The Janus Affair
(Harper, 2012)

Suffragists are ruffling feathers in Victorian England, what with their "vote" nonsense and whatnot, but it isn't until some key members of the movement begin disappearing in a flash of light and whiff of electricity that Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, archivists for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, get involved.

OK, that's not entirely true. Eliza, a feisty former field agent from New Zealand, is already jonesing for equal rights for women in stuffy old England, but her political leanings aside, she is irresistibly drawn into the mystery -- first, when a woman on the run vanishes before their eyes on a fast-moving hypersteam train, and then when Eliza's old friend and mentor, Kate Sheppard, arrives in London to lead the movement and seems in constant, imminent peril.

It doesn't hurt that she brings in tow her globetrotting son, Douglas, with whom Eliza has shared an intense case of mutual hots.

More women disappear, and the agent officially assigned to the case is unmotivated to follow the leads. So, although Books and Braun's duties are theoretically confined to the ministry's basement-level archives, they opt to take the field and begin their own investigation.

There are layers upon layers of intrigue, not only in the plot to disrupt the suffrage movement but also to wage a holy war across the globe. There also is a plot from within Her Majesty's government to discredit the ministry's efforts -- a subplot that, while underused here, is hearty grist for future volumes.

Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris's sophomore novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series ramps the steampunk level to 11, so fans of the rapidly growing and, let's face it, wickedly cool genre will eat this book up with a spoon.

It is not without its flaws, however -- enough so that I'd rank The Janus Affair below its predecessor in the series, Phoenix Rising, which came out last year. They're not major defects, however, so I'd still recommend reading it quick as you can.

One problem here is that steampunk technology should be more of a seasoning than a meal; the stories are set in the past, after all, so the technology should not be so mainstream that it becomes common. It's beyond common in this world, though: the motorcycles and robot spiders, portable computers and communication devices are so plentiful, it seems at times less a tale from a bygone age than it does a bunch of modern characters who simply like to play dress up for their adventures. Heck, everyone and his cousin has some sort of clockwork prosthetic limb or other buzzing, whirring or clanking enhancement -- apparently the technology is so widespread that anyone can afford it, and no one is ever surprised to see it.

The other gaffe, at least from my point of view, is the introduction of a truly likable character simply so that person can be killed off and leave the reader feeling bad about it. This person has no purpose in the book other than to win our affections, then die in miserable, sympathy-evoking circumstances. Pah, it's a shameless technique that is overused.

That said, The Janus Affair is good, solid entertainment. The lead characters are a pleasure to know, and you can't help but root for them to prevail against whatever nemeses assail them. The action is fast-paced and incisive, and you won't want to put the book down until you've made it through to the bitter end.

Ballantine and Morris have a good, inventive handle on the steampunk world; if they dial it down just a notch, they can keep this series going ad infinitum and win themselves a healthy following of rabid fans.

book review by
Tom Knapp

4 August 2012

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