Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Bullet Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan

Rating: WORTHY!

I'm not a series fan unless the series is exceptional, and this one managed to get under that wire even though it's the inaugural novel in "The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire" series. What this means, practically, it's that it's nothing more than a really, really long prologue, and I am not find of prologues at all. This book managed to persuade me it was a worthy read however, despite the curious title.

I should say I am not a fan of titles of this format: "The X's Daughter" where X is typically some sort of male profession, and the novel is typically historical, often Victorian. While I readily concede that such titles are inherently intriguing and provocative, I have to also argue that they're rather demeaning because they define a woman not in her own right, but as an appendage of a man, which I find insulting, so it's with mixed feelings that I enter the world of such a novel, seduced by the blurb, but uncomfortable with the pigeon-holing. As it happens, the main character isn't the bullet catcher's daughter, so there! And I still await a novel of the form "The X's Son" where X is a female profession.... Maybe I'll have to write that one myself.

This is a YA novel as well as both an alternate reality and a steam-punk novel, and one negative review I read railed against that, sternly admonishing the author to keep their genres straight, but I have to reject that! Why should the author be confined to a single genre? The author can do what they like as far as I'm concerned. They can completely mash-up genres. In fact, I applaud with authors who skirt the rules, although I don't guarantee that I'll like such a novel. It's not the reviewer's choice, it's the author's. We don't have to like it, but we do have to respect it! Think of this as primarily alternate history, but with a nice dash of steam-punk which complements the story without burying it in clouds of steam.

Talking of skirting the rules, the big attraction for me was the cross-dressing detective. She's a woman in a man's world and the only way she can make her own way is to be a woman by daylight, and a male detective by night. There's nothing sexual in this - it's purely practical. Hailing from a circus background, she is an expert at disguising herself, having spent her childhood years as a male impersonator in her father's traveling show. In this novel, the UK has become divided, after a second civil war, into the Anglo-Scottish Republic, which is essentially everything north of Leicester (pronounced "Lester"), and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales (everything else).

One minor problem resulted in Leicester being slashed in half, the northern part of the city being in the dour, strict, man's world of the ASR, where women cannot hold property or serious jobs. It's a cross between cold-war era Soviet Russia and Victorian England if you can even picture such a mashup. The southern side of Leicester remained in the more flamboyant south, and Leicester itself therefore, a city not very far from my home town as it happens, became like cold-war Berlin - a hotbed of sly border crossings, spying, intrigue, subterfuge, and under-the-table dealings.

Elizabeth Barnabus grew up in the south, but had to flee it as a child after the Duke of Northampton bought up all her father's debt and promised to ruin him if he didn't pay it off by trading his debts for his young daughter's servitude with the lecherous not-so-noble man. What the Duke never understood was that his target was both Elizabeth and her own brother, Edwin. She fled the arse-ocratically controlled, but very liberal south, which she loved, for the protection of the dour and oppressive north, which she pretty much hates. Nevertheless, she managed to eke out a living there, using Edwin as the breadwinner. She is also earning a small keep herself by tutoring Julia, the daughter of her landlords, about the legal system. She doesn't have rooms, but lives on a steam boat on the canal, a boat which she is in danger of losing if she cannot come up with the final 100 guineas (a guinea is one pound and one shilling) which she requires to own it outright.

She's thrilled therefore to be given a very lucrative commission by the Duchess of Bletchley (that last word being a famous location in British intelligence history) to find her missing son. Elizabeth isn't quite so thrilled when her pursuit of this case brings her into conflict with the International Patent Office, otherwise known as the gas-lit empire - the multinational and all-powerful controlling body for all new inventions. She is perturbed to discover that one of their number has been stalking her, and resolves to quit this job, but you know she won't! it was at this point that I feared an inappropriately clich├ęd and tedious romance, but the author was smart enough to avoid that like the plague, so kudos and gratitude to him for this!

The same plaudit goes for his female character. She is a very strong woman even as she has moments of weakness and doubt, even though she gets things wrong and screws up some times. She is not strong in the sense that she can kick anyone's butt, yet she's inventive, smart (for the most part!), and largely fearless - or perhaps more accurate, not so much fearless as she is courageous, dedicated and brave. Yes, she despairs, and wavers, but in the end she comes through. This is why I liked her so much. This male author seems to understand what a strong female character is, and curiously understands it better than far too many YA female authors do. Why is that? I recommend this heartily and look forward to the sequel. It's really nice to be able to say that!