Monday, November 28, 2011

UNDERCOVER REVIEWS - Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurences

Review by Nick Ahlhelm

Among mainstream fantasy publishers, mixing steampunk with pulp themes has almost became run of the mill. Pyr Books alone has multiple series pitting dashing heroes against the steam-powered contraptions that litter steampunk adventure fiction. Not to be outdone, Harper Collins has its own offering from their Voyager line. Written by the podcasting duo of Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (currently of “The Shared Desk”), Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel introduces readers to the ministry that gives the series its name.

Set in Victorian England, the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is a secret division of the Queen’s many and varied federal agencies charged with handling the more oddball events that the government would prefer remain unknown to the general populace. The story focuses on two agents: Wellington Books, head of the Ministry’s Archives, and Eliza D. Braun, a care-free New Zealander whose (literally) explosive methods land her in the Archives as a form of punishment.

Of course, this is pulp, so it isn’t a book about two archivists archiving. A such, Braun soon begins to investigate the circumstances behind her former partner’s death. She quickly learns he discovered something large and very dangerous: a conspiracy among Britain’s top businessmen to overthrow the Queen’s government. As they continue their investigation, Braun stumbles upon a female assassin every bit her equal in skill. Eventually Braun’s stubbornness and Books’ gadgets allow the pair to track the conspirators to a secret conclave.

From beginning to end, Ballantine and Morris expertly balance exposition and character studies with huge action set pieces. The story starts strong with an exciting rescue, and every time the pace wanes, another threat appears to keep everything moving.

The novel moves so fast that the climax comes almost as a surprise. While a role reversal in the final pages sets up Books to finally get to play hero, it fails to quite live up to the battles that Braun wages through the rest of the novel.

Even with the somewhat sudden end to their adventure, Phoenix Rising accomplishes the task of being an exciting romp through a slightly different world than we remember. Phoenix Rising comes Recommended.

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