Unseemly Science (The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2) by Rod Duncan
Genre: Adult steampunk
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: May 5 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: Happily, more of the wonderful character of Elizabeth Barnabus, but ultimately, a plot that sputtered along slowly until it picked up at the end.
**Mild, unavoidable spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.
I dove into Unseemly Science, eager to get back into the appealing steampunk world that Duncan began in The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter. Alas, this second installment just didn’t work as well for me as the first book. I hesitate to say it suffered from the dreaded “middle book syndrome,” because many reviewers adored this book. Was it just me? I’m not sure, but I’ll attempt to explain my feelings. What did work for me was the same thing I loved in the first book: the delightful character of Elizabeth Barnabas, who once again steals the show with her clever and resourceful ways. She’s still a favorite fictional character of mine, and I can barely believe some of the trouble she gets into—and then gets out of by the skin of her teeth.
Several things are going on when the story begins. First of all, Elizabeth’s dear friend Julia has decided to join up with a mysterious woman named Mrs. Raike, who recruits young ladies to help her with charitable works. Elizabeth is immediately suspicious of her, since she appears in public draped in a veil, as if she were trying to hide something. At the same time, the officials of the Republic, where Elizabeth now lives, are determined to roust out those people who are originally from the Kingdom, like Elizabeth, and send them all back home. This terrifies Elizabeth, as she fled the Kingdom under terrible circumstances and has no wish to return. A complex game of cat and mouse is afoot as she is forced to dodge people who are chasing her, determined to force her out of her home.
And finally, as Julia joins Mrs. Raike and begins to look into a situation with a group of ice farmers, another mystery slowly emerges. All these tenuous plot lines seem bound to eventually fit together, and finally they do, but not without the reader first having to slog through some confusing storytelling. My biggest issue with Unseemly Science is that it just didn’t hold my interest, and I really had to force myself to keep coming back to it. (In fact, I did take a break half-way through and read another book.) The magic of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, with its fascinating circus of illusion and mechanical devices, was missing from this book, unfortunately. What we get this time around is a story that focuses on the downtrodden groups of the Republic, like the ice farmers whose ice is being stolen, and Elizabeth herself, who seems to have no true home of her own.
Luckily things pick up in the last quarter of the book, when Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery of the stolen ice. From that point on, the story had everything I was looking for and more: exciting action scenes, lots of danger for Elizabeth and her friends, and a grim reveal where we get to see exactly what the ice thieves are doing with the stolen ice (and where you will discover the meaning of “unseemly science”). If only the first part had been half as entertaining!
Duncan brings back the character of John Farthing, a man who works for the mysterious Patent Office and who had a much larger part in the first book. There are hints of a romance between him and Elizabeth, but their scenes together were so few and far between that it’s hard to tell where that story-line might be headed.
But if you’re looking for a female character with spunk, you can’t find any better than Elizabeth, especially considering the strict Victorian-like society she lives in, where women have no rights of their own and exist only to be married off to men. Elizabeth breaks the mold in many ways. She gets into fights, fires her gun, climbs rooftops to escape a man who’s chasing her, and much more. And she does it all with a cool head. In fact, I don’t think she panicked once the entire story!
I did love the ending, which points in the direction of the next book, The Custodian of Marvels, which I do plan to read, despite my feelings for this book.
Big thanks to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy.
Read my review of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter
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