Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lady Lauren's Panacea
  Book Reviews by Lauren Harris
August 2014

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 steampunk story.

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 narration
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 romantic manipulation.

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 important.

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

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