Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris,
Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising
(Harper, 2011)

More James Bond than Sherlock Holmes, Phoenix Rising is an excellent introduction to the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a special investigations branch of Her Majesty's government that brings a touch of The X-Files -- and shades of Steed and Mrs. Peel -- to the glory days of Queen Victoria's England.

Eliza Braun is a front-lines agent who relies on her fighting skills and clockwork gadgetry -- to say nothing of her natural assets -- to see her through in any situation. Wellington Books is a meticulous archivist with untapped -- or intentionally hidden -- skills that have rarely been tested in the field. Now that circumstances and the mysterious head of the ministry, Dr. Sound, have thrown them together, one might expect some quiet time spent filing reports and logging artifacts ... but no, Eliza has other plans up her bulletproof corset. It isn't long before she unearths a forgotten case file, left unfinished by her former partner, who now lies mad at Bedlam, and drags Wellington into danger and intrigue as they infiltrate a secret society bent on overthrowing the monarchy.

Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris have gotten this steampunk mystery and adventure series off to a jolly good start. Both lead characters have hidden depths that need a good plumbing, and there are ample games afoot in the background to keep the series going for a good, long while.

There are a few hitches and stumbles along the way, some as minor as some spelling errors that shouldn't have passed the editor -- "grizzly" for "grisly" is a pet peeve of mine -- and an overabundant use of "quipped" for "said," even when there are no quips to be seen in that piece of dialogue. It also seems that Ballantine and Morris are trying a little too hard to inject sensuality and sexual tension into the story when they should let it happen a little more naturally; Eliza's inappropriate choice of time and place for bathing was intriguingly handled, for instance, while her drunken striptease was not. Her pitiful pleas for a kiss were just a bit sad.

The book maintains a light sense of humor throughout, as well as a few little in-jokes, such as the characters Bruce Campbell and Barnabas and Angelique Collins. The action is enjoyable, the villains deliciously evil and the potential for more ripe for the picking. All in all, I very much want to see what happens to Eliza and Wellington next.

book review by
Tom Knapp

21 May 2011

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