Unseemly Science, Rod Duncan

Unseemly Science, Rod DuncanUnseemly Science by Rod Duncan First Published: 2015 Pages: 346 (Paperback) Form: Novel Series: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #2 Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

In the divided land of England, Elizabeth Barnabus has been living a double life – as both herself and as her brother, the private detective. Witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess, Elizabeth resolves to throw the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook into the fire, and forget her past. If only it were that easy! There is a new charitable organisation in town, run by some highly respectable women. But something doesn’t feel right to Elizabeth. Perhaps it is time for her fictional brother to come out of retirement for one last case…? Her unstoppable curiosity leads her to a dark world of body-snatching, unseemly experimentation, politics and scandal. Never was it harder for a woman in a man’s world…

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the first book in Rod Duncan’s steampunk series, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, was one of my surprise favourite reads of last year. It had so much to love; a competent (crossdressing!) and pragmatic heroine, a genuine female friendship, gripping plot, fun victorian/steampunk trappings, limited hints at future romance, and wonderful alternate-history world-building. And all set in a part of the UK that I was pretty familiar with too (Leicester pride!). It had literally all the things I never even realised I wanted when I picked it up as a light holiday read. The sequel is not as strong. It is slower to jump into the ‘main’ plot and there is a lot more going on. For the first half of the book it relies more on the character of its protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabas, than it does on fast paced action (though there’s still plenty), and isn’t as instantly gripping ‘what’s going to happen next!?’ as the first book. But actually, I’m pretty fine with that. I love Elizabeth and I don’t object at all to spending more time in her head with her thoughts. She’s a competent, confident, independent young woman and, in an incredibly patriarchal environment, is more than capable of using others expectations to her advantage (and frequently crossdresses as her fictional brother to get her information, when she can’t). She could so so easily have fallen into the ‘strong female character’ trap of being a collection of bland positive traits with absolutely no flaws, but she’s also a complex character who makes mistakes and occasionally misjudges things (most notably her utter obliviousness to how distractingly sexy John Farthing finds her – honestly, I ship this pair so fucking hard after just two books that it’s kind of scary). She’s no personalityless badass and she’s no blushingly shy teen-fiction heroine; she’s a fully rounded and compelling character and the sort of woman I want to see more of in my fiction – especially in my fantasy fiction (looking at you Locke Lomara!) So yes, it’s a slower burn than the fast paced action of The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the main plot (blocks of ice are mysteriously going missing) is less immediately exciting, and there is less of John Farthing (who’s antagonistic yet sympathetic interactions with Elizabeth were still some of my favourite scenes) but it is still a very good book. The friendship (female friendships!) between Julia and Elizabeth is expanded on a lot, the big overarching plot themes for the series are deepened (republic v kingdom, the status of women, the reach of the Patent Office, Elizabeth’s status and safety as a refugee and indentured servant on the run from Duke Rapey Mcraperson), and the self-contained story itself isn’t actually all that bad either, despite the main villain only really coming to the fore in the last section of the book. It’s darker and creepier than the first novel, a little less straight up action-adventure and a little more gradually building tension, but that worked. All in all, I think, a thoroughly worthy sequel. Now I just have to wait an entire year for The Custodian of Marvels to come out and continue the story. A year! This is why following current series is the worst! But at least the blurb is practically promising me a bucketful of  Elizabeth/Farthing sexual tension.


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