The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter (The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #1) by Rod Duncan
Genre: Adult Steampunk
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A rollicking steampunk adventure, filled with intricate twists and turns, top-notch world building, and a heroine that quickly became one of my favorites ever.
Illusion was my inheritance, fed to me on my mother’s lap as the drowsy rocking of the caravan and the slow rhythm of iron-shod hooves lulled me. It was a ripe strawberry conjured from the air, or a silver coin caressed from my soft cheek by the touch of a loving hand.
The first great illusion given me by my father was the gift of being, when needed, my own twin brother. I learned by stages to move as he moved and to look as he looked. My voice would always be the weakest part of the illusion, but even this could be covered by misdirection. At a distance of twenty paces, under the deceiving illumination of the stage lights, my friends could not tell me from a man.
From the opening paragraph of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, I was enchanted by just about everything this book has to offer. Duncan’s novel takes place in an alternate history UK that feels very much like Victorian England but with the steampunk addition of airships. Elizabeth Barnabus is the young narrator, and her voice was so clear and, frankly, feminine, that I kept having to remind myself that the author is male. I’ve run across several brilliantly written books with a male narrator written by a female author, but I think this might the best male author writing a female character that I’ve ever read. A delicious air of mystery and hijinks pervades this story, and I was immediately drawn into the unique world Duncan has created. True, there are many steampunk novels out there with airships and mechanical devices, but this book has much more, including a circus of illusion, a menacing organization called the Patent Office, and two lands divided by a hard-to-cross border.
Elizabeth, our heroine, lives in exile in the land of the Republic, an old-fashioned and oppressive place where women aren’t allowed in bars or out on the streets unchaperoned. Her true home, the Kingdom, lies just out of reach on the other side of the border. After the ruin of her family, she barely survives by eking out a living as an “intelligence gatherer,” except there’s a twist—Elizabeth makes her living at night by dressing up as a man and pretending to be her twin brother.
After the Duchess of Bletchley approaches “Mr. Barnabus” and begs him to find her missing brother, offering a king’s ransom for completing the job, Elizabeth agrees, knowing the money will get her out of debt for good. But Mr. Orville’s (the Duchess’ brother) trail proves hard to find, until Elizabeth stumbles upon Harry Timpson’s Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, a wondrous circus that just might hide clues as to his whereabouts. Elizabeth finagles herself into the ranks of the circus-folk and gets a job cleaning out the lion pens, but the mysteries keep piling up. Why is the dreaded Patent Office after Mr. Orville? Who is John Farthing and why is he following Elizabeth? And what does the mysterious contraption, a box that Mr. Orville supposedly stole, do anyway? There are dangers aplenty, as well as adventure, all wrapped up in a lively narrative that whisks the reader along with barely time to take a breath.
I have to begin by talking about the character of Elizabeth, because she was such a bright and vivacious part of this story. Many of the other characters were strong and engaging as well, but none can compete with Elizabeth, who really steals the show. One of the ongoing and unexplained mysteries of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is whether or not Elizabeth’s twin brother actually exists (and by the end of the book, I still wasn’t sure!). She has been taught by her father from a very young age the art of “becoming” a man, in dress, makeup, hair and attitude, and in this way she conceals herself and is able to move among men and conduct her intelligence gathering. Duncan’s descriptions of how quickly she can change into her brother, and back again, were fascinating. Elizabeth is never without her battered old case that hides the clothing and wigs necessary for her illusion.
But disguising herself as a man isn’t without its challenges. Elizabeth’s friend Julia, who believes there are actually two siblings, begins to fall for the brother (awkward!). And throughout the story, not everyone is fooled by the disguise. Eventually Elizabeth’s dual life becomes rather complicated, and you can imagine the hilarity that ensues.
The details of Elizabeth’s backstory and the reason she now lives in the Republic are slowly doled out over the course of the book. Duncan does a great job of avoiding “info dump” by letting the story unfold in its own way and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.
Part of the plot revolves around the circus that Elizabeth briefly joins, but this is by no means a “circus story.” However, she meets several colorful and endearing characters while working there, most notably a young boy named Tinker who melted my heart, who also used to live in the Kingdom, and a fortune-teller named Tania who seems to know exactly what Elizabeth is up to.
The steampunk elements were so interesting, and Duncan goes into detailed description at one point about exactly how an airship runs. In fact, there were so many interesting touches that remind you this world is very unfamiliar. Details like the avian post (birds that deliver letters) and the hub ship that Elizabeth lives on (an old boat no longer in use) and even a strange holiday called Ned Ludd Day (which explains the meaning of the word “Luddite”) were so charming. Even though at its heart this story is what I would call a “caper” and is filled with chase scenes and misdirection, it’s also an alternate history story that is rich with colorful details.
The author includes a glossary called The Bullet Catcher’s Handbook at the end of the book, which explains some of the unfamiliar terms used in the story (including “bullet catcher”) which I found very useful. He also begins each chapter with short excerpts from the handbook, like this pithy statement:
“Lying is an art form. It becomes sin only if the deception is discovered.”
By the end of the story, many of the mysteries are solved. But Duncan teases us with a hint of what’s to come in the next book, which luckily for us is not that far away (January 2015!). Run, don’t walk, and pick up this wonderful adventure tale with one of the most clever and resourceful heroines you’ll ever meet.
Many thanks to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
You can find The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter here: