Lady Lauren's Panacea
PRESCRIPTION: Dawn's Early Light, by Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine
SYMPTOMS: Symptoms: steampunk, mystery, series, multiple perspectives
DOSAGE: (out of five)
Continuing in with the steampunk theme is the newest release in the Ministry of
Peculiar Occurrences series by literary power-couple Tee Morris and Pip
Ballantine, Dawn's Early Light. The series itself is a fast-paced steampunk crime
procedural that has been described as the X-Files with airships, tea, and steel-boned corsets. Unlike many other steampunk stories, the Ministry books focus on
the gadgetry and mystery rather than the supernatural elements of the story,
integrating the steampunk technology seamlessly into the world and the plot. Most
of the mysteries the characters come up against either revolve around
unexplainable tech or rely heavily on imaginative and fantastical gadgetry.
Though the plots are fast-paced and exciting, it's the characters who take center
stage. The main characters are Eliza D. Braun, an Agent of the Ministry and
expatriate New Zealander with an inability to restrain her love of explosives and a
tendency to take matters into her own reckless hands. Early on, she is suspended
from active duty and reassigned to the Ministry Archives to work under one
Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire, whom she rescued in the opening scene.
Agent Books is a tea-loving, gadget-tinkering, Giles-esque librarian ("Archivist!")
. . . with a twist. Unknown to Ms. Braun, Books was formerly a soldier and expert
rifleman in her Majesty's army.
The bickering between them creates palpable tension from the start, and,
immediately, I shipped it. I airshipped it. Knowing it was a series, I feared a
Mulder and Sculley-esque waiting game with an unsatisfactory result, but Morris
and Ballantine clearly know their audience well enough to keep readers waiting
too long. They also manage to avoid the pitfall of static-romance so feared when a
series' main characters get together, as if there is nothing interesting left after a
relationship is confirmed. Secondary characters bring both color and confusion to
the mix, along with the scandalous baggage of backstory to trouble our daring
duo's romantic aspirations.
The romance, however, takes a supporting role to the explosion-heavy plots,
which put Books and Braun in danger at every turn. In Dawn's Early Light, the
duo is sent to America to assist with the fledgling American Ministry, and finds
themselves caught up in a plot that threatens to destroy the city of San Francisco,
and piggy-backs off the historical rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nicola
Tesla, both of whom appear as characters in this installment. Expect fantastic
integration of the actual plans and technologies of both inventors into this
One of the things I appreciate most about the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is
its worldwide scope and diverse cast. Characters of multiple backgrounds populate
the Ministry itself, and Agent Braun's understanding of her own country's Maori
culture illuminates a segment of the world's population that at least I knew
nothing about. Of course, it helps that Ballantine herself is from New Zealand, and
perhaps that is why Braun's occasional moments of homesickness resonate so
clearly through the text.
Avid podcasters and self-publishers, Morris and Ballantine invite other authors to
contribute to the Ministry's canon in their free, Parsec Award-winning short-fiction podcast, Tales From the Archives.
PRESCRIPTION: The Finishing School Books, by Gail Carriger
SYMPTOMS: Symptoms: steampunk, young adult, girl-positive, interracial romance, witty
DOSAGE: (out of five)
In Gail Carriger's debut Young Adult series, the Finishing School books, she
brings all the levity and wit of her Parasol Protectorate series, now with 100%
more airship-boarding school. For those unfamiliar with Carriger's unique brand
of paranormal steampunk, the first book of the Finishing School series, Etiquette
and Espionage, is an excellent entry-point. Carriger's ability to introduce concepts
such as gentlemen vampires and airship captain werewolves without dipping too
far into the extensive worldbuilding of her Parasol Protectorate books is one
strength of her writing, and perhaps that's because each element carries weight in
the plot -- vampires, werewolves, and airships. Oh my.
Sophronia is a heroine ahead of her time, yet she doesn't read like an anachronism.
She's aware of the place she holds in society, yet unwilling -- seemingly
incapable -- of stepping into it. Rather than demurring to the tenets of ladylike
behavior, she insists on disassembling automatons, free-climbing the hull of
moving airships, and asking too many questions. It's to no one's surprise but
Sophronia's that she's recruited by a school for assassins and spies. Her surprise,
however, is indicative of the fact that, while intelligent and confident, Sophronia
isn't self-aware. The omniscient narrator is conscious of her attributes, and
sprinkles in a few expertly-delivered "little did she know" moments that offer
glimpses not only of Sophronia's flaws and assets, but of how they might shape
her and her story later.
What I liked most about this story -- prepare for a shock -- was the love interests.
Yes, interests. As a person who typically hates love-triangles, I would normally
have been put off, but Carriger neatly sidesteps my preferences by making her
heroine far too practical to fall into the usual trap. Both boys are fully-realized,
lovable characters, but Sophronia has bigger things to worry about. She sees both
as friends and assets, and Sophronia's lack of self-awareness allows her to believe
they can't possibly be romantically interested, so she employs their talents to the
ends of solving the mysteries at hand in the spirit of friendship rather than
The Finishing School series is one of the few examples of an interracial couple in
Young Adult fiction, particularly genre fiction. The primary love-interest, a young
man named Soap, is an ingenious "Sooty," one of the young men who works in the
coal chamber of the airship. Sophronia meets him in darkness, and when she
finally does see him in the light, she discovers he's black. Though she is too
cerebral to realize what it means, readers understand her attraction to him from the
start, and their relationship adds layers of tension to the social aspect of the story.
Carriger doesn't shy away from the realities of racism in Victorian England, nor
does she sideline Soap as a -- well -- soapbox. He is who he is, and he is
Where I would normally talk about magic systems, the steampunk equivalent of
gadgetry takes center-stage. The devices run from mundane dumbwaiters -- actual
artifacts of the Victorian period -- and mechanical animals (mechanimals, as
deemed) to vast testing machines of diabolical wonder and automaton hall-pass
Nazis, all of which function as their own plot device. Pun intended.
Finally, amidst the mystery-solving hijinks are some girl-positive concepts that
had me throwing it at my other friends. The idea of a Finishing School for lady
assassins and spies itself might have lent too much to the idea that all feminine
power is negative power, if not for the fact that the lady spies and assassins served
the crown as part of an elite network for the protection of England. The part that
had me cheering was the idea of traditionally feminine things as equal and
powerful -- fans, flowers, petticoats, and eyelash-flutters.
Read more by Lauren Harris