Oh my goodness! It’s been six months since I’ve reviewed a steampunk novel – it’s time for another one!
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett Tor, 2013.
Gideon Smith is a young man addicted to the penny dreadfuls, especially the “true stories of Captain Lucian Trigger, hero of the Empire, as told to his companion John Reed.” Captain Trigger travels all over the world, including the far-flung outposts of the British Empire in North America and India, among others. When Gideon’s father is lost at sea in mysterious circumstances, and a young boy of his acquaintance draws a picture of a monster he claims to have seen that matches exactly the description of one that Captain Trigger once encountered, Gideon decides that there’s nothing left for him in his little fishing village. He sets off to find Captain Trigger himself, to enlist his aid in solving the mystery. On the way to London, he meets Maria, a beautiful clockwork girl whose master is missing and who is being mistreated by the serving staff, who don’t recognize her human-like intelligence.
Meanwhile, Bram Stoker is in Gideon’s home village, trying to overcome a bad case of writer’s block. There he meets vampire Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is seeking revenge on her husband Dracula’s killers. She believes them to be ancient Egyptian frog monsters, the Children of Hequet.
Gideon’s illusions are shattered when he learns that Captain Trigger isn’t the hero the papers make him out to be – indeed, he’s a broken shell of a man, hoping against hope for the return of his lover, John Reed. Even so, Gideon seems to have the charisma to attract a motley band of people to track down John Reed in hopes that his disappearance will hold some clues to the mysteries that Gideon is investigating. In addition to the characters already mentioned (minus the little boy), it includes the foul-mouthed reporter Aloysius Bent, hoping for a career-saving story, and famous sky pilot Captain Rowena Fanshawe.
The one troubling thing in this book was that while it seemed on the surface to espouse modern sexual values (and there was no explicit sex in the book), the only named “good guys” to die (spoiler alert!) were those who engaged in less traditional sexual activities. As in, heterosexual activity in or out of marriage is OK, but homosexuality or a down-on-her-luck street girl turning to prostitution in times of extreme need, not so much. The deaths in the story all had other, more obvious reasons, and I felt like Barnett thought he was demonstrating the open-mindedness of his steampunk empire when writing the story – but as the only factor linking multiple deaths, the effect was rather the opposite.
On the whole, though, while it took a couple of chapters for me to feel fully engaged with the story, once it got going, I very much enjoyed it. The colorful characters and over-the-top adventures involving sky pirates and mysterious monsters, with a touch of romance, made for a rip-roaring tale with all the elements a satisfying steampunk story needs.