Don't ask me how I got my hands on a copy of a book that has yet to go on sale. That information is on a need-to-know basis and more than you can afford. But this much I will tell you freely. From the ingenious art work of Will Staehle – that blood-red Victorian purse/ metallic hand – to the fabulous title, The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, Rod Duncan's first novel in the Gaslit Empire series promises a thrilling and duplicitous read. And it delivers. This treat from imprint Angry Robot (loving their Cylon logo too!) is coming to Steampunk fans this September, with a sequel hot on its heels next spring. It has as much peril, mystery and mashed-up Victorian-futuristic technology as you could wish but above all, what will be bringing this reader back for more is the central character; gutsy cross-dressing private-detective, Elizabeth Barnabus. She is alone in this world but for a fictional brother and a remembered father. 'I'm no more than a shadow,' she tells a would-be admirer, 'and can have only such friendships and feelings as a shadow might'. Only one job away from destitution, she yet turns out to be a cunning and always courageous match for the shadowy Agents of the all-powerful International Patent Office. Appealingly, she is an accomplished liar as well as a reader of others' deceptions.
'Illusion was my inheritance,' she confides early on. From a childhood spent in The Circus of Mysteries, she has learnt ' … the gift of being, when needed, my own twin brother.' Without this skill, Elizabeth cannot survive as a woman on the run exiled in a land where females cannot own property or run businesses. 'Equal but different' is the slogan of the Anglo-Scottish Republic, a rather Puritan world where the Rational Dress Society enforces strict codes about women's clothing: 'That is not a hat and you are not properly dressed.' Elizabeth, masquerading as a Victorian gentleman 'intelligence-gather', is a deviant living in the shadows of Leicester's waterfront on an old canal-boat, Bessie. Duncan convincingly explores the mechanics of her gender-manipulation: 'Men fancy they recognize a woman by her dress, figure and face but it is more through movement …' Elizabeth enjoys strolling through the city with the easy swagger of a man: 'rolling the shoulders … occupying the centre of the road.' However much she can handle a weapon and calculate an escape route, this action-heroine is young and at times, emotionally volatile. 'I don't know if it was fear or anger that made me act,' she reflects after shoving a loaded revolver in a thug's mouth. What's for sure is you're rooting for this outsider who is not only a wanted 'fugitive from a contract of indentured servitude' but also a Gypsy who arouses a casual bigotry in officials of the Republic.
Elizabeth has crossed all sorts of lines in a novel pre-occupied with boundaries of many kinds. A runaway from the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales, she occupies the middle-space of Leicester, a city bisected by the historic partition of England (an irony this Irish reviewer enjoyed.) As a citizen of the real Midlands centre, I thought the sense of place enriched the novel with its Turkey Café, Darkside Coffee House and Gallowtree Gate, complete with gallows. The twin border-checkpoints are a step away from Leicester's iconic Clock Tower. Another location I recognise as 'the Lanes', offering 'an alternative shopping experience' of boutiques and 'emporiums', has become Duncan's 'the Backs … that dark warren of narrow streets, blind alleys and iniquity.' I found myself wanting a map in the book (apparently this will be found in the accompanying web-site on publication) but then again, my Leicester is not the fictional city. Rather I am looking at a setting reflected back in the distorting lens of a fairground-mirror. Similarly, I kept thinking I had gotten a foothold on the history of the book, drawing on my own knowledge of the English Revolution, the Luddites and Empire etc. But like a tourist who's strayed into the smuggler's den of the Backs, I am easily way-laid. It makes no sense that the emerging bourgeoisie of Cromwell's Puritans would build a realm so hostile to technological innovation. And which century am I in when a reference to the 1970s is dropped in as a teaser never to be explained? History-as-we-know it, fragments of that narrative, have been shaken up in the kaleidoscope of Duncan's invention. It is this kind of total 'world-building' that draws in the reader and I hope to master this alternative history as it unfolds over several volumes.
I soon stopped trying to map my way through, too caught up in the rapid pace of Elizabeth Barnabus' adventures. The protagonist is continuously on the move, taking an airship to Lincolnshire, where she pursues Harry Timpson's Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, and later to London where she not only risks capture by her old enemy, the Duke of Northampton, but even enters the citadel of the terrifying International Patent Office. The Lincolnshire scenes will delight fans of the cult-TV series, Carnivale – I'll say no more – and the capital is at once Dickensian and deliciously fantastic with its International Air Terminus at St. Pancras. The tension of quest and discovery is constant. And Elizabeth Barnabus has more secrets and back-story packed into her trusty portmanteau than her friends can possibly know or the agents of the Patent Office suspect. 'Illusion is story,' she advises us, quoting her long-lost father, '… weave it with characters … and love and loss and the audience will follow you as children … followed the Pied Piper of Hamlin.' Here are Mysteries wrapped in Disguises moon-lighting as Plots. The closing pages promise that The Gaslit Empire will yield many more before its rumoured 'Fall'. This reader is booking her ticket for the show and marking off the months till the sequel 'Unseemly Science' rolls into town.