Friday, March 20, 2015

What We're Reading: Steampunk

When readers last saw Gideon Smith, the newly appointed Hero of the Empire, the situation was dire. Maria, the titular character of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, had been kidnaped and was last seen being forced to fly Apep (a large mechanical dragon unearthed from beneath an Egyptian pyramid) across the Atlantic Ocean in the direction of British America. Gideon loves Maria, even though he is having difficulty with the idea of a clockwork person in general and Maria in particular…but this is just one of the challenges facing Gideon. While the stories in the penny dreadfuls, with their wild adventures, colorful characters and life and death scenarios, are what lured Gideon away from the fishing village and the life he used to know, they didn’t prepare him for just how big, how wide, how wonderful and odd the world can be. And his first adventure was just a taste of what awaits him as he pursues Maria (and Apep) to British America. 

In Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, author David Barnett expands and develops the world created for, and introduced in, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl. In sharp contrast to most works labeled “steampunk,” Barnett takes readers across the Atlantic and away from the trappings of Victorian England to a previously unseen America (and gives a brief primer on political developments since the American Revolution was thwarted in 1775). The continent is currently occupied by Native Americans, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Japanese (who recently took California and San Francisco from Spain). This alternate history is both fascinating and illuminating. 

Barnett also works to develop the characters introduced in the earlier book. In this second volume the characters grow, change and develop, and new characters are introduced. All of Barnett’s characters are familiar types, but are infused with some contemporary sensibilities and end up being more than a bit unpredictable. 

Like the previous novel, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is a fun read! As in the pulp novels and penny dreadfuls that are clearly an inspiration and a strong influence, Barnett takes incredible situations and makes them just credible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and go along on the journey. Gideon’s visit to America will alter both the world and the characters--particularly Gideon, who will not only grow in his understanding of the expectations inherent in being the Hero of the Empire, but will also begin to question not only those expectations but also those who hold them. Here’s hoping the wait for the next adventure will not be long!

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