Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical GirlTitle: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
Author: 
David Barnett
Published:
 
10 September 2013
Publisher: 
Tor
Genre: 
steampunk, alternate history, adventure, metafiction
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl takes place in a steampunky alternate world: the America lost its War of Independence and remained a part of the British Empire, where the sun has not yet set and airships fly between continents.

In the tiny fishing village of Sandsend, Gideon Smith dreams of a more exciting life than one spent fishing. His imagination goes on exciting travels and adventures with World Marvels and Wonders, a penny dreadful magazine that publishes the tales of Captain Trigger, the Hero of the Empire. “Lucian Trigger was an agent of the Crown, charged by Queen Victoria herself with tackling the more unusual threats to her globe-spanning empire” and he’s aided by a band of adventurous friends. Gideon has read, re-read and memorised all of Trigger’s stories and at the age of 24, Gideon believes in Trigger like a 5-year-old believes in Father Christmas.

So when the entire crew of his father’s fishing boat vanishes and Gideon suspects a supernatural cause, he actually calls the magazine and asks to speak to Captain Lucian Trigger about “a most urgent matter!”, “an emergency!”. Obviously Gideon just gets laughed at, but he finds an ally in the author Bram Stoker, who happens to be in a nearby town doing research for his next book. Stoker however, is looking for vampires and inspiration. Gideon believes that he’s chasing the wrong monster, so he packs up and leaves for London to find Captain Trigger.

On the way he finds the house of Albert Einstein’s father, an amazing inventor. Einstein has disappeared, but he left behind a beautiful automaton named Maria. Maria is being sexually abused by Einstein’s servant, so Gideon takes her with him to London, a city that she’s dreamt about even though she’s never seen it.

When Gideon finds Captain Trigger, he’s disappointed – Trigger is a sickly old man who stays at home writing about the exploits of the real adventurer, his lover Dr John Reed. But Reed has disappeared on a journey related to the Gideon’s own mystery, and Trigger is now inspired to join Gideon on a quest to find him. Soon they find themselves embarking on an adventure that would suit Gideon’s beloved penny dreadfuls – a crazy caper with a motley crew of companions fighting a horde of ancient monsters.  They travel to exotic locations and encounter great danger as a mission of love and revenge turns into a desperate plight to save the world.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure with lots of mystery and action, full of tropes like ancient artefacts with incredible power, monsters awakened from a centuries’ long slumber, beautiful women, sinister villains and a dashing hero. According to author David Barnett in an interview with My Bookish Ways:

It was inspired, really, by a love of old-fashioned adventure, both the Victorian type and the pulp-ish Indiana Jones-style escapades. I wanted to write something like that but with modern sensibilities – explore the nature of heroism

By modern sensibilities I assume Barnett is referring to inclusive things like the fact that Trigger is gay and the hero of the magazine stories is his lover. Two of the women in the novel – the dirigible pilot Rowena Fanshawe and Countess Dracula – are capable, independent and sexually liberal, possessing strengths that make them equal to or more powerful than their male counterparts. Dracula’s wife Elizabeth actually goes around liberating other women from their social and physical constraints in a decidedly unconventional manner. There is also some criticism of the power of the British Empire and the practice of slavery.

However, what stands out most of me in Barnett’s quote is the word “pulp-ish”. Because pulpy is a word that frequently came to mind as I was reading. To say the novel “was inspired […] by a love of old-fashioned adventure” is a very inviting way of describing it. I thought of it as more of a homage to the penny dreadful, falling on the sillier side of sensational. This style just didn’t work for me the way it did in, say, the equally ludicrous The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton. It’s supposed to be fun, but it takes itself a little too seriously and still has old-fashioned tropes that could have been ‘modernised’.

The characters travel to Egypt where they meet a Ugandan guide who plays the funny, jolly foreigner with an odd way of speaking English. The female characters Fanshawe and Elizabeth might be independent, but too much emphasis is placed on their sex appeal. One of the male characters, a crude, overweight journalist named Bent, seems incapable of talking about any of the female characters without some reference to sex or their bodies. Maria, meanwhile, is a terribly pathetic damsel in distress (more on her later). And there’s Gideon, the traditional hero – a young man of humble origins, driven to heroism by the desire to avenge his father and save a girl.

I found it difficult to like Gideon. It’s possible to see him as adorably naïve but I just thought he was a twit. In fact the author wrote him as “a bit of an idiot” or at least “naïve and a dreamer” at the start, who will hopefully become “a bit more likeable and appealing as the story progresses” (My Bookish Ways). I don’t know if Barnett is referring to just this story or Gideon’s progression across forthcoming books, but I never warmed to him. A 24-year-old man who believes that his favourite adventure stories are the absolute truth just because they claim to be so? What a dope. It’s fine at the beginning of the book (after all, Gideon comes from a tiny village), but towards the end Gideon still can’t believe how much of Captain Trigger’s adventures are fictionalised despite many of the lies being revealed. Not that it really matters, because the story supports a more sensational view of the world. Gideon is deluded, but it’s his delusions that allow him to be a hero, as if this story were his own personal fantasy.

His greatest skill is memorising Captain Trigger’s adventures. Often, when he and his companions are in trouble, he thinks of a comparable situation from one of the stories, and employs whatever escape plan the characters used. And it works. Fiction serves reality, and because Gideon can quote or enact the fiction, because he’s so determined to live out his hero fantasy, the other characters start to look to him for guidance even though almost all of them are more experienced than he is.

And to be a true hero Gideon needs Maria – a suitably pathetic female character. The title suggests she is little more than a thing, and this is appropriate. When Gideon finds her, she’s being sexually abused by Crowe, a man who sees her as a mindless automaton. Crowe is a pervert, but you can’t blame him for not recognising Maria’s intelligence; she pretended to be mindless with him, never speaking because she “would not waste words on that scoundrel” who “would have merely heaped more insults upon me and enjoyed my pain yet further if he thought I […] could feel”. This sounds a bit thin to me, and as we later learn, Maria didn’t have to put up with Crowe at all – physically, she’s extremely strong. But somehow, she never knew this about herself so she’s in dire need of rescue.

When Gideon escapes with her, Crowe accuses him of theft. Gideon rightly points out that he’s liberating Maria, but Crowe has no reason to see it this way. Maria could easily prove her sentience at this moment and leave her abuser with a cutting remark, but she remains silent, which is her tendency for much of the novel. Entire scenes go by where Maria is present but never speaks. As one character states, “She’s a pretty little thing, but barely says a word and doesn’t even know her own name.”

And the plot treats her as a thing too. She was made using an artefact that the monsters seek for their secret plot, and until this is discovered she’s like a toy following Gideon around. Later she is abducted then rescued, but after her return no one asks her about her experience. It’s like they saved an artefact rather than a person. One character says to Gideon, “Hey, what’s a hero without a damsel in distress?” and that basically describes the rest of Maria’s role. Besides being an object within the plot, she’s there to be rescued by Gideon so he can be a proper hero, and to be beautiful so he can fall in love with her, which in turn serves to drive him to action.

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about these two, but luckily they’re not really the main characters. The novel has a fantastic title but it’s a bit misleading because the narrative frequently switches its point of view between the many other major characters, particularly Bram Stoker and the misanthropic journalist Bent. It becomes a bit overwhelming at the end though, with frantic switches in POV to see various aspects of the action. I also have to add that Bent’s swearing gets extremely irritating. Not because he swears all the time – I don’t mind that – but because at some point he stops saying “fuck” and uses “eff!” and “effing” in almost every sentence. Drove me batshit.

A few remarks on world building. Steampunk Victorian England is always fun and I happily accept clockwork women who are almost indistinguishable from real women and dirigibles that can fly from one continent to another. There are some other issues that bugged me though. Because America’s revolution failed, France never gave them the Statue of Liberty. Instead they gave it to Britain “to celebrate the defeat of the Yankee rebels in 1775”. Which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. No one was liberated so the statue (known as “The Lady of Liberty”) is pointless. In addition, France had freed itself from its own tyrannical monarchs, so why would they honour the monarch whose empire prevented America from doing the same? Then, for no reason other than sheer hubris, the Taj Mahal has been dismantled and is being rebuilt in England. This gargantuan task acts as a display of Victoria’s indomitable power, but I find it both unnecessary and bizarre.

At times, the novel is critical of this kind of power, but its overall stance is ambiguous, if not supportive of the British Empire. While a few characters rail against its unethical practices, the majority work to preserve its world dominance. Gideon’s determination to become a hero becomes a rather unthinking endeavour to protect Queen and… Empire.

If this book really does “explore the nature of heroism” as Barnett claims, then it makes some discomfiting observations. Firstly there’s something deluded and deceptive about heroism. There are heroes performing heroic acts, but this always involves lies and fiction in some way. It also needs a weakling like Maria to be threatened so the hero has an opportunity to be heroic. And at the end of the day, what heroism does – or at least the sort of heroism found in this novel – is preserve an imperious status quo. On the bright side, a few things suggest the the second and third books will have a more rebellious kind of heroism, which could make them more interesting than this one.

There are things I liked. Bram Stoker was an enjoyable character, and I liked seeing him find inspiration for Dracula, only to learn the ‘truth’ about vampires and take an alternate path. While I criticised the way Fanshawe and Elizabeth are oversexed, I have to admit that I do like how sexy they are while also being skilful and powerful. And at times the absurdity of the plot really was just as fun as intended. If you enjoy this sort of old-fashioned, penny-dreadful, Indiana-Jonesy sort of caper, you could have a lot of fun with this. I think maybe it’s just a little too old-fashioned for me.

Up for Review 25/06/2012

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke (Orbit Books)

Marketing copy from Netgalley:

Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist. 


The undead matriarch of a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. A world where being nobility means being infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.

 

Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key-the prize in a very dangerous struggle.

God Save the Queen will be released on 3 July 2012 by Orbit Books. Follow the link to read the first chapter. You can check out the author’s website here.

___________________________________________________________

Advent by James Treadwell (Atria Books)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he carries contains a mirror safeguarding a portion of his soul and a small ring containing all the magic in the world. Together, they comprise something unimaginably terrible.

 

London, the present day. Fifteen-year-old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to the countryside to live with his aunt. His school and his parents can’t cope with him and the things he sees, things they tell him don’t really exist.
At Pendurra, Gavin finds people who are like him, who see things too. They all tell him the same thing: magic exists, and it’s leaking back into our world—and bringing something terrible with it.

 

     Advent is an epic novel with heart-stopping moments, notable as much for its atmosphere as for its pace and sense of place. With numerous themes deftly woven throughout the compelling narrative, this novel is a spellbinding return to old-fashion storytelling and impossible to put down.

Advent was published in the UK on 2 February 2012. The US edition will be published on 3 July 2012 by Atria Books. You can check out the author’s website here.

Review of The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

Title: The Pillars of Hercules
Author: 
David J. Williams writing as David Constantine
Published: 
06 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Night Shade Books
Genre:
 mythology, historical, steampunk, alternate history
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3/10

Alexander of Macedonia has just taken over Egypt, a province of the powerful Athenian Empire. His conquest marks the beginning of his campaign to crush the Empire as a whole. He believes himself to be a god, the son of Zeus, and it seems like nothing will stand in his way. Everyone speaks of the sorcery that Alexander has at his command – Greek fire, deadly war machines designed by his former tutor, Aristotle, as well as the seemingly god-like ability to control the weather. And Alexander isn’t just planning to conquer the Athenian Empire. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules – the gateway to the outer ocean – lies the lost city of Atlantis and powerful artefacts of the ancients. If Alexander can get control of such secrets, he won’t stop at conquering the Athenian Empire – he’ll aim for world domination.

Helping the ambitious prince is his ever-loyal lieutenant Eumenes, and experienced generals like Perdiccas. Many are trying to stop him or take the treasures of Atlantis for themselves. Alexander’s cold-hearted father, Philip, has sent his bastard son Ptolemy to thwart the legitimate son who wants to rule the Macedonian Empire. Barsine, a Persian noblewoman, holds a deep grudge against Alexander for conquering her homeland, and possesses the means to undermine his goals. She recruits a pair of soldiers to help her – a Gaul named Lugorix who wields an axe he calls Skullseeker, and a Greek archer named Matthias. The Athenian commander Leonidas is determined to save his Empire from slaughter as he pits his forces against Alexander’s.

These intertwined narratives clash in battles of blood and flame, with swords, axes and battleships going up against automatons, gunpowder and siege engines. Myth and magic are intertwined with science, in a novel that combines steampunk, alternate history, mythology and the ancient world.

It’s a pretty weird genre mash-up, but it sounded like an interesting idea. Unfortunately it failed. Miserably.

I don’t know what to start with, so I’ll start at the beginning, when I had hope. I generally liked the characters, of which there are many. Too many, I eventually realised. The story is made up of multiple strands, and the author, David J. Williams writing as David Constantine, frequently adds or removes POVs from the narrative, even towards the end (it’s really irritating). Not all the characters are likeable and some – like Alexander – could have been fleshed out more, but the narrators were interesting enough. Although I could handle the large cast of characters however, I was struggling to get a grasp on the politics and military strategy, simply because I have no head for that stuff and my mind tends to wander. To make things easier, I clicked over to the Wikipedia entry on Alexander the Great in order to get a better idea of what was going on. Instead I found that Constantine had little interest in historical accuracy and an article on Alexander wasn’t going to help much, except to confirm that some of the major character really did exist.

According to his website for the novel, Constantine’s intention was, in part, to explore the question of what might have happened had Alexander gone west, rather than east. In Pillars of the Earth, Alexander doesn’t die in Babylon as the history books tell us, but conquered it and continued east to Afghanistan. It’s there that he receives an order from his father to come home, so he turns around and returns to Pella, Macedonia, attacking Egypt on the way. This brings me to another major historical difference – at this point in Alexander’s life, his father had been dead for over a decade, and he was already King of Macedonia. Here, however, his father is alive and the two are caught in a power struggle for the throne. Philip is king, but Alexander’s army is more powerful, and their relationship has always been tense at best.

Alexander’s mother Olympias is long dead, although in reality she outlived both her husband and son. I was a bit miffed about her absence. Other than Alexander, she was the one character I wanted to see – the woman who claimed she’d been impregnated by Zeus and given birth to a god. I would have loved to see her interactions with Alexander, convincing him of his divinity. Instead, Constantine killed her off in favour of a more mundane father-son conflict.

Technically, all this puts the novel in the alternate history genre. However, it feels a lot more like the author is just exploiting an historical narrative to write an action adventure novel, without much respect for his source material. Constantine would hardly be the first to do this, and I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed wildly inaccurate books or movies simply because I thought they were fun. But in this case the author goes way too far and it really pissed me off.

My biggest issue was the language. Alternate history is fine. Steampunk in the ancient world sounds cool. But your characters cannot bloody speak in modern slang saying things like “awesome”, “what gives” and “dig this”, or high-five each other after blowing up enemy ships. The dialogue also has a very brash American quality to it, which makes it even worse. At one point, Barsine says “Suck on this” before firing a torpedo. The Macedonians are referred to as “Macks”. Matthias crudely says “Fuck you very much” to a man he doesn’t like. There is also mention of the terms “turkey shoot” and “human pretzel”. Pretzels?! Really? They didn’t even exist then! I’m fairly sure turkey shoots didn’t either.

I already hated Constantine’s writing because of this, but my opinion of it was further lowered by the fact that the book was riddled with errors. I usually don’t mention this when it comes to ARCs, because they still have to go through a final proof. In this case however, there were way, way more errors and inconsistencies than I’ve ever seen in an ARC and I just couldn’t see Constantine as anything other than a sloppy writer.

Then there’s the steampunk aspect, which also contributes to the historical authenticity issue. The idea in itself is fine, but there’s lot of tech that seriously pushes the boundaries of plausibility, usually for the sake of big explosions. Barsine, the Persian noblewoman, has a ship that can travel at high speed, fire torpedoes, and be converted into a submarine. Alexander has a hoard of war-machines designed by Aristotle. In this novel, Aristotle isn’t portrayed so much as a philosopher as a sorcerer/scientist. Magic and science are intertwined, in the sense that those who don’t understand things like periscopes or bombs call them magic, while those who know how they work call it science. Aristotle’s designs include a giant siege engine, automatons, and something called a Leviathan – a huge, mechanically controlled human figure. The siege engine and Leviathans were ok, but I couldn’t imagine how they’d program robots or have missiles and torpedoes. Constantine just pushes his premise way too far with little explanation for how these things are possible, to the extent that it feels like you’re reading about modern warfare.

The author’s final major crime is relying far too heavily on artificial mystery. The characters in the know keep their plans from others and the reader, so that you’re never sure exactly what’s going on until a plan is executed, and even then you might not know why. Sometimes, they don’t even keep significant information from you. A character might just see something worrying (like a bunch of soldiers coming at them), but they still won’t say what it is until later. To facilitate this, Constantine switches the POV every few pages, as if to create a diversion. So at the moment when it something momentous could be revealed, the POV switches so we can’t find out what it is. Constantine keeps this up right until the climax of the novel, when he starts switching POVs every few paragraphs.

As far as maintaining the mystery is concerned, this tactic works. But mystery should be tense and exciting whereas this is just extremely irritating and confusing, especially when almost every character is one step ahead of you. It also makes it devilishly hard to keep up with the complex plot and the large cast of characters. By the end I was so tired of it all I couldn’t give a fuck about the big secrets at the end of the Earth. I just wanted the damn book to end. My rating dropped from 5 to 3 because every sentence was setting my teeth on edge.

This story might have worked as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. It wouldn’t take up more than 2 or 3 hours of your time and there’d be sexy people and mind-blowing CGI to keep your attention off all the ghastly flaws. Instead, you have to spend a good few hours making the effort to read it, and it’s painfully obvious how much this doesn’t quite feel like the ancient world. If you really don’t care about any of this as long as someone’s getting an axe in the face every couple of pages, then there’s plenty for you to enjoy. If not, it will probably make you want to scream.