Friday, July 6, 2012

The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

I went on a little bit of a steampunk kick last year and one of the things I read was Phoenix Rising, the first of Pip Ballantine's and Tee Morris' Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.

The first book introduced readers to the odd couple pairing of the fiery colonial (she's from New Zealand) Ministry Agent Eliza Braun and the ministry's inoffensive archivist Wellington Books. It was a thoroughly enjoyable romp, so I was really looking forward to the next book in the series; The Janus Affair.

I was delighted to see it pop up amongst the new releases at my local SFF bookshop, and snapped it up eagerly. Books and Braun are a great couple. They complement each other so well, and although they both resist it, both they and readers know that somehow they'll wind up together.

The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences are as much romances as they are steampunk mysteries. It's an interesting mix and one I really enjoy reading, the steampunk influences, the romance and the English Victorian setting are something they share with another one of my favourite series; Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, although the style of writing is very different. Gail Carriger recalls P.G Wodehouse and Jane Austen, whereas Ballantine and Morris are much more modern in style and tone.

Last time the agents were up against the dreaded House of Usher, and while this time that organisation may be pulling the strings (the rogue British peer Lord Sussex is almost certainly associated with them in some way whether he realises it or not), it's not as obvious and Books and Braun have to find out who is beyond the mysterious deaths of prominent suffragettes before they themselves become the next victims. They'll have to fight not only their enemies, but a prominent Victorian criminal, House of Usher agent Sophia del Morte, and one of their own in the form of double agent, Australian Ministry agent Bruce Campbell.

The Janus Affair took a little long to set up for mine, but once you got past that, and the story really got going, the sparks flew, the action rolled and the pages flew by.

Readers get more glimpses into Books rather cold and dysfunctional upbringing, and how it affects his relationship with Eliza and his life in general. They are also afforded a look at Eliza's past with the introduction of the prominent suffragette Kate Sheppard, and her dashing adventurer son; Douglas. As Douglas was one of Eliza's former boyfriends, and he's well known as a boys own hero of the realm he manages to put Books' nose severely out of joint. Books does get some of his own back by cleaning Douglas up during a rugby match. I'm sure that was Pip Ballantine's influence there, New Zealanders revere the game of rugby union with something approaching religious fervor. Being an Australian Rules follower I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about when Books put the shoulder into Sheppard. In Australian Rules Football (no, it is NOT rugby!) we call that a shirtfront, and it's a common occurrence.

The rugby match is one highlight. The caper with Books and Eliza's gang of street urchins; the Ministry Seven (who actually have eight members), is another. I loved his interaction with the gang's only female member; the cute blond Serena. Eliza's showdown with criminal queen bee Diamond Dottie is also worth mentioning.

Phoenix Rising was a bit of a mash up of steampunk, romance, mystery and urban fantasy. The Janus Affair is far more of a steampunk book with lashings of romance, it seems more comfortable in that slot, and the writers voices are stronger and more assured throughout because of it.

Some loose ends are tied up, and others are left deliberately flapping in the breeze to be followed up in future installments. At the end Eliza and Wellington looked set to travel to the United States, I do hope that's the focus of the next book, because I'd love to see them set loose on an unsuspecting American populace.

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