REVIEW: Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences I: Phoenix Rising (Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris)

pr_mopocoverEncapsulate the book in one sentence?
Steampunk, steampunk, EVERYWHERE.

Intriguing, tell me more.

In steampunk London, dynamite-loving Ministry agent Eliza Braun is assigned to the steady hands of Archivist Wellington Books in an effort to calm her down. Instead, they find themselves on the trail of the shadowy Phoenix Society…

Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read…?

Personal choice, part of my new year’s steampunk splurge. I’ve been meaning to listen to the podcast for ages, but thought I’d best start at the beginning first.

What genre would you say it is?

This is, gloriously and unashamedly, pure-grade steampunk. It has everything: airships, corsets (bulletproof!), improbable automata, Whitechapel brawls, Holmesian urchins, gaslight and peasoupers, asylums and big, empire-shaking conspiracies.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

Read in two days and yes: I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book really is a melting pot of everything steampunk, thrown into one book and tied together in the (surprisingly cohesive) shape of a mystery. Though the trope of maverick/reserved agent pairing is well-worn, Books and Braun are entertaining and likeable, and once the Phoenix Society is infiltrated in the finale, they prove suitably monstrous. Plus there’s a whole bunch of other derring-do thrown in on top which is great fun. The only bits that slightly jar are a couple of threads involving potentially treacherous Ministry employees; they don’t quite fit into Phoenix Rising, but presumably point towards deeper conspiracies in later volumes.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

With all compliments meant by this, Phoenix Rising does exactly what it says on the tin: a pulpy, zippy, atmospheric steampunk adventure. It’s what I expected, and its what I got, which is precisely what I wanted it to do. That said, there is a moment towards the end in which two background characters are summarily executed to show the evil of the Phoenix Society, which is a shade darker than I had expected the book to go; applause for that.

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

My favourite scene occurs midway, in which Eliza and Wellington infiltrate the opera in order to spy on agents of the Phoenix society. Eliza hates opera, and things are further complicated by having to con their way into a specific opera box. It’s the pair’s best mismatched-duo-sparring scene, and the con-man mechanics of getting hold of the right tickets are slick and deliciously entertaining.

Give me a good quote:

“Introductions?” she whispered sharply. “Are you mad?”
Wellington stared at her, and repeated, “Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire and Chief Archivist at the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. And you are?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Eliza D. Braun, Field Agent.” Her eyes darted behind him, and the gunshot echoed around the crypt. Wellington turned to see the foot soldier crumple to the ground, still clutching his rifle. She smiled slightly. “Currently saving your arse for the Ministry. Come on!”

What do you mean, bad reviews?

I like reading bad reviews of books I like. A few complaints from goodreads:
– “I hate steampunk. This book is terrible!” Stop reading steampunk, perhaps?
– “This is just Warehouse 13 in Victorian England!” I’ll grant you there is that vibe, but I fail to see the problem.
– “Tortured attempt at Victorian language.” Okay, this one bugs me. Firstly, I’ve read a lot of Victorian-era literature, and this certainly doesn’t do a terrible job. Secondly, it’s not really meant to. It’s meant to be that difficult-to-nail prose style in the middle, which is simultaneously light, but with enough reference to Victorian-era writing style that you get a feel for it. Personally, I thought they managed it pretty admirably for the most part.
– “The ‘I hate you but we have been forced to work together’ cliché. Sure, it worked for [lists countless examples].” No-one said we were reinventing the wheel here. If it ain’t broke…
– “Braun is the shittiest, most obnoxious, incompetent, headache inducing attempt at a heroin that I have EVER FUCKING READ!!!” Actually, this review is pretty funny. It’s a little bit true, in a snarky way, but Braun was great anyway (and it case it isn’t clear, I am not a man easily seduced by bosoms, literary or not.)

Is it available today?

The first four Peculiar Occurrences novels were published through HarperCollins (I believe), with the final two in the series due to be independently released shortly, alongside a whole fistful of short story anthologies by numerous authors and a podcast.

Soundtrack of choice: 

Despite no actual airship pirates, the swagger was necessary, so we’re going with Abney Park’s Airship Pirate.

(The review format is stolen and adapted from lifeonmagrs.)


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