Friday, November 29, 2013

What we're reading: Steampunk

Take some traditional pulp elements (a heroic protagonist, a grand adventure, a hidden treasure awaiting discovery). Mix them with some features of a decidedly steampunk variety (airships, fantastical technologies and, of course, Queen Victoria!). Throw in some horror (mummies and vampires – okay, these could be found in the pulps as well). Add a heaping helping of historical figures and alternate history. Include some contemporary sensibilities and a strong sense of fun. Combine well and, if you’re lucky, you’ll end up with David Barnett’s new novel, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.

Gideon Smith is the son of a fisherman in the small Yorkshire village of Sandsend . While he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fisherman too, Gideon’s true love are the stories in the penny dreadfuls from World Marvels & Wonders on which he splurges each month, reveling in the adventures of Captain Lucien Trigger, Hero of the Empire. Gideon reads and re-reads these adventures, wondering what it must be like to be on an adventure in some exotic locale under the orders of Queen Victoria. He works on the fishing boat with his father, and dreams of venturing outside his village.

Then the unthinkable happens: Gideon’s father and his entire crew go missing. Their fishing boat is found one morning, derelict in the bay. While the rest of the village writes it off as a commonplace tragedy of the sea, Gideon isn’t so sure. He is further convinced something is amiss when he hears strange noises coming from the caves near the bay...and then the son of one of the other fishermen claims to have seen a monster in the village. Gideon is convinced that all of these occurrences are connected to his father’s death and that there is only one person who can solve this mystery: Captain Lucien Trigger. Gideon knows that the offices of World Marvels & Wonders are in London, and decides he must visit them to secure Captain Trigger’s assistance in solving the mystery in Sandsend. What Gideon doesn’t know is that not only are these events connected, but they are part of a much bigger plot that will place him on an adventure beyond anything he has read in the pages of his penny dreadfuls!

In Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, author David Barnett has created a genre-blending novel that will appeal to fans of science fiction, horror, alternative histories, pulp, and adventure stories. The settings range from the serene British coastline to the urban environs of London and Alexandria to the blazing sands of Egypt (with enough exposition about France, Spain and the New World to nicely fill in the details of the wonderful alternate world that has been created). The characters are familiar “types,” and yet they are filled with new life and promise. To add to the unexpected, many of these “typical” characters are imbued with more contemporary sensibilities, resulting in a much more diverse cast of characters than found in a traditional pulp story. The adventure is top notch (with almost every chapter ending in a cliffhanger!). The ending of the book indicates that this is merely the first of what will hopefully be the many and varied adventures of Mr. Gideon Smith!

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