REVIEW: Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper (David Barnett)

screen-shot-2015-04-27-at-13-10-05(The review format is stolen from lifeonmagrs.)

Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Knowing steampunk adventures through a richly-depicted gaslit London.

Book Pot or Personal Choice?

Personal choice–in fact, it’s one of a tiny handful of books I’ve read in the last four months that aren’t part of my re-read project.

What is the book about and what genre would you say it is?

Hero of the Empire Gideon Smith has had his memory filched by the evil Markus Mesmer. Mechanical girl Maria is hunting for a missing girl, reporter Aloysius Bent is hunting for the Ripper who’s bloodying up the city, and Rowena Fanshawe is in trial for a murder she didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the Whitechapel prostitutes are on strike, there’s a monster in the sewers, and all hell’s about the break loose.

The Gideon Smith series is firmly steampunk, although a knowing brand of the genre that happily throws a wink in the direction of the reader without sacrificing to parody. That said, Mask of the Ripper is probably the least out-and-out-steampunk of the series: bar the superficial elements (airships, mechanical dragons, automata…) this story is more victorian adventure (not that that’s much of a difference, I’ll grant you, plus there’s a dinosaur, so perhaps disregard the previous.)

Also, for all it’s lightness and fun, there is quite a dark undertone to Ripper – this isn’t a Victoriana-fantasia: it doesn’t shy away from the real violence of the streets, especially for the prostitutes of Whitechapel.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

I read it in a couple of days, and was absolutely gripped: this is undoubtedly my favourite of the series so far. Mechanical Girl threw every gothic/steampunk trope into the pot in a glorious, heady adventure that was – despite how much I loved that – breathlessly paced (and also short, and I have a sneaking suspicion that given the length of the follow-ups, Mechanical Girl started a longer book). Brass Dragon took time to delve into the rich detail of Barnett’s alternate world in a weird west setting that was totally different to the first, and expand upon its characters, granting them depth beyond pulp archetypes. Mask of the Ripper puts those together, and it’s winning formula. We have all of the action, gaslight derring-do and Victorian nastiness, alongside the now-familiar cast of characters, but the length gives time for detail, richness and nuance. And it’s bloody excellent.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

Maria! The titular mechanical girl, whilst an interesting character, is somewhat short on agency in the first two novels, primarily being kidnapped and awaiting rescue in both (at least until the very end of Brass Dragon.) In Mask of the Ripper she’s finally what I always wanted her to be: a kick-ass (but still realistically vulnerable) female character that is seeking both her place in a world of men, and her relationship with Gideon, and also totally able to snap you in two.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

My favourite addition to the series is Gloria Monday, a transgender character who works the music-halls and has a secret lover (hint, it’s a fairly major character). There is a scene between her and Maria in which they compare their comparative issues with feeling like ‘real’ women which has real emotional resonance–plus Gloria is brilliant. More Gloria, please! (The ending suggests the possibility of a spin-off with an entirely different set of characters. I’d be totally down for that.)

Also, Sherlock Holmes hangs around the fringes of Ripper, and in this iteration is possibly a deluded nutcase, which makes this the second genius reinvention of Holmes by Barnett — see his story in Encounters of Sherlock Holmes in which Mrs Hudson is the real detective.

(Oh! Also: Tait and Lyall. Likewise brilliant.)

Give me a good quote:

“You know the difference between scrambled eggs and an omelet? It is simply a matter of stirring. Leave your beaten eggs in the pan, and you have an omelet. Stir them, and you have scrambled eggs. It’s the same with living things. Ten years ago, a German by the name of Boveri found this out with sea urchins. Chromosomes, they call it. Boys and girls are so close together, before they’re born, Maria. There’s nothing different about them for most of the time they’re in the womb. Then, a stir there, you get a baby boy. No stirring, a baby girl.” A sad, faraway look entered Gloria’s eye. “My eggs got scrambled by mistake, Maria. I should have been an omelet.”

Is it available today?

Tor in the US and Snowbooks in the UK. Out now.

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