a review by Evie Kendal
The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences investigates unusual events and artefacts in service of Queen Victoria. At the beginning of Phoenix Rising, Agent Eliza D. Braun is sent to execute the Ministry’s archivist, Wellington Books, who was captured and tortured for information by some unknown enemy. After finding Books though, Braun believes that he hasn’t been compromised and decides to use her penchant for explosives to rescue him instead. As punishment for this insubordination, Braun is reassigned to be Books’ partner, cataloguing Ministry archives and assisting in research for other field agents’ missions. Books is as horrified by this as Braun, since her cataloguing abilities leave much to be desired and she does not dress or behave “like a lady.”
During her first week in the archives, Braun learns that there is a whole section devoted to filing cold cases, unresolved missions that have been abandoned due to understaffing and a lack of leads. In there she discovers the case that her former partner, Harrison Thorne, had been working before he mysteriously disappeared only to be recovered a week later, completely out of his senses. Braun tries to convince Books that they should be trying to solve these cases, rather than just cataloguing artefacts, but Books refuses to be swayed from his duty. Braun then takes matters into her own hands, going to visit Thorne in “Bedlam” in an attempt to gain insight into what he learned before he went mad. Books follows and confronts her, at which point Braun challenges him to find his “sense of adventure.” This forms the basis for their new partnership, as they investigate the string of murders Thorne was convinced were related to each other.
In flavour this novel is like a cross between the TV series Warehouse 13 and The X-Files, except with an English twist. The plot is fun, the language smooth, and there are a variety of amusing incidents that serve to draw Braun and Books closer together (these two are quite similar to Emma Peel and John Stead from the Avengers, although Braun is a New Zealander). The sexual tension between the two lead characters is consistently maintained and adds another layer to the detective narrative. Highly recommended for anyone who likes steampunk, saucy heroines with bulletproof corsets and canons affectionately called “Katherina,” repressed British librarians and supernatural villains.