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REVIEW: Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

Dear Ms. Ballantine and Mr. Morris,

I have an uneasy relationship with steampunk. I want to like the genre, but I feel like the label has become so dilute as to be useless. It seems like anything featuring corsets, parasols, tea, and goggles gets labelled steampunk these days. Sure, there’s usually a mention of a flying dirigible but really? Is that all it takes? I was under the impression things like that were called gaslight fantasy! But I’m stubborn and I keep trying. I was first introduced to Ms. Ballantine’s work under the Philippa Ballantine name with the novel, Geist, when it first came out. That book didn’t work for me and ended up being an DNF, but poking around her website led me to a forthcoming steampunk series called the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, of which Phoenix Rising is the first novel.

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee MorrisThe Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is a secret organization of the Crown, charged with the task of investigating and dealing with the strange and unexplained. Eliza Braun is one of its very talented field agents. Unfortunately, she’s prone to making rash and reckless decisions while in the field, which often results in many explosions. Since the Ministry is meant to be a secret organization, loud and enormous explosions tend to make that task more difficult.

Eliza’s latest rash decision took place during the rescue of fellow Ministry employee, Wellington Books, the organization’s Archivist. Books was abducted and on the verge of being tortured for information when Eliza came to his rescue. Her orders were to kill him, due to the fear of his being compromised. As the Archivist, Books knows many of the Ministry’s secrets and should any of that information be made available to their numerous enemies, disaster would be sure to follow. But instead of carrying out her orders, Eliza senses that the worst has not yet come to pass and instead chooses to rescue him from the isolated Antarctic base. But not without some impressive fireworks.

Books is ecstatic to be rescued. Eliza, however, has to face the consequences. As punishment for her constant string of “rash” decisions, she is reassigned from the field to the Archives, where she is to work as Books’s assistant. This pleases neither of them. Eliza would rather be in the field, and Books quickly realizes that his new partner has no interest in the Archives and is, in fact, a disaster waiting to happen. All that changes when they stumble across the files of a cold case, one that once had belonged to Eliza and her former partner, who nows lives within the walls of an asylum.

First of all, I must commend you both on writing a steampunk that actually makes use of steampunk! It’s not just goggles here. Eliza is very fond of various gadgets (that make things explode) and Books makes use of various machinery to make his tasks in the Archives run more smoothly. Although, as the case with most forms of technology, sometimes the machinery just makes his life more complicated by malfunctioning. There are airships, of course, but people actually ride them, not just mention them in a cursory manner. The worldbuilding wasn’t in-depth or detailed but it was enough to convince me that this was a steampunk world well beyond the gaslight stage.

The plot also moved along at a fast clip with lots of action. Since I’ve been reading lots of YA lately and by its nature, that genre tends to be introspective due to the coming of age themes, this was a welcome change of pace. I do like a good action adventure story and Phoenix Rising certainly delivered on that score. It contains many of the staples that you’d expect from this setting: asylums, secret societies, shady bars, crowded London streets. While nothing was necessarily original, the familiarity of those elements are comforting.

The downside of the action plot is that the characters suffer. I did like Eliza’s headstrong, rash personality just as I liked Books’s stuffy demeanor. But even as we delve into Eliza’s relationship — professional and otherwise — with her former partner and skirt the mysteries of Books’s past and what brought him to the Ministry’s employ, we don’t really see much of a character arc. Phoenix Rising is very much an “odd partners coming to an understanding” type of narrative and while that aspect reaches a satisfactory conclusion, the individual characters of Eliza and Books don’t undergo much of a transformation. This is probably the book’s biggest weakness. I’m willing to be forgiving in this area, however, because I thought the plot made up for it and I assume that we’ll learn more in future books.

I also appreciated the fact that Britain’s imperialistic tendencies during this time period were not glossed over. Eliza hails from the British colony of New Zealand and it continually comes up throughout the book — from the co-worker who makes snide comments about the sheep stereotype or from Books who notes that a certain type of British citizen would consider Eliza no better than the dirt beneath their shoes. Eliza is indeed an agent of the crown, but she hasn’t given up her New Zealand roots as witnessed by the pistols she bears.

While the character arcs could have been stronger, I thought the action adventure plot was fun. In fantasy, we often swing between two extremes: the very lighthearted and the very serious. It was nice to read a book that was fun and had its serious moments but never completely descended into the grim and dark. The protagonists’ names are Braun (Brawn) and Books, after all. I’m looking forward to the further adventures of Braun and Books so I have to give Phoenix Rising a B-.

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

23 Comments

  1. Angela
    May 17, 2011 @ 16:08:47

    Great review, Jia! I’ve had this one on my to-buy list since I first saw it somewhere many months ago. This makes me a lot more excited to read it.

    I, too, have been looking for good steampunk – that actually is steampunk.

  2. Chris W
    May 17, 2011 @ 16:41:01

    Thanks for reviewing a steampunk! I have liked them since Iron Duke but have not had very good luck finding others!

  3. Allie
    May 17, 2011 @ 17:08:17

    I won’t read a book with zombies in it because I think they are gross and icky and it just ruins the story for me. Does this book have zombies in it? If not, I will read it. I love the gadgetry of steampunk but as yet have not been able to finish a book in this genre.

  4. Laine
    May 17, 2011 @ 17:24:31

    I was lucky enough to attend a bookreading from this book by the author at Worldcon last year. I immediately put it on my buy list. Tee Morris was an early podcaster of books and I think this shows in the book.

  5. Tina
    May 17, 2011 @ 17:28:52

    Cool. I just started this book yesterday. The cover really sucked me in at first. I am digging the gender role reversal with her being the rescuing, trigger/explosives happy one and he being a bit on the prim side.

  6. Jia
    May 17, 2011 @ 19:16:19

    @Allie: There are no zombies that I recall. Personally, I don’t understand the prevalence of zombies in steampunk either.

  7. Tee Morris
    May 17, 2011 @ 20:07:31

    Dear Jia:

    On behalf of Pip, Wellington, Eliza, and the agents of the Ministry, we would like to thank you for your investment into our humble first outing with Harper Voyager. We hope you will join us for our second outing, coming soon.

    Cheers,

    Tee Morris :^)

  8. Jia
    May 17, 2011 @ 20:14:48

    @Tee Morris: I am so sorry! I assumed you were female. I’ll edit that right now.

  9. Cindy
    May 17, 2011 @ 20:22:15

    Oooh thanks for the review and I too am glad to hear there are no zombies. I don’t understand the fascination. I believe this will be my next read…Eliza sounds very much like Fiona from Burn Notice, one of my all time favorite TV characters. It’s been setting on my reader since release day…I even broke down and bought it without a coupon *gasps*

  10. Karen Witkowski
    May 17, 2011 @ 21:09:54

    I downloaded PHOENIX RISING to my Kindle because of the good reviews I was seeing online. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  11. SH
    May 17, 2011 @ 21:39:07

    Great review! I want to like steampunk too, but I’m still unable to see the appeal – there’s just nothing there that makes me want to read (and I hate genre fads).

    Perhaps I’ll give this one a go.

  12. Allie
    May 17, 2011 @ 22:24:07

    @Jia – Wonderful! Thank you. I’ll definitely read this. And I’ll have to hope, if I like it, that future books are zombie-free…

  13. Tee Morris
    May 18, 2011 @ 08:43:11

    @Jia *LOL* You wouldn’t be the first to make that assumption that I was female. It’s becoming a bit of a running joke now between Pip and me.

    @SH If you do give us a go, I would love to hear your impressions. We would love to have Phoenix Rising be a gateway drug for you into steampunk, so who knows? :^)

    @Cindy One of my missions after I finish up the next Ministry book, Of Cogs & Corsets, I’m intending to catch up on my Burn Notice. Eliza could have a dash of Fiona, but I saw her more of an Emma Peel from The Avengers. I have a soft spot in my heart for Steed and Peel. :^)

  14. Jia
    May 18, 2011 @ 10:12:15

    @Tee Morris: I’ve never watched Burn Notice so I couldn’t comment on the comparison but Eliza definitely reminded me a lot of Emma Peel. (That’s a good thing!)

  15. Gwen Hayes
    May 18, 2011 @ 11:59:10

    Not only am I interested in reading this book–I’m now exploring the differences between gaslight fantasy and steampunk. Which is also showing me MOAR book I must read.

  16. Renee
    May 19, 2011 @ 05:20:03

    Ooh this sounds like a great read! I’ve been looking for some fun steampunk to read lately :)

  17. Renee
    May 19, 2011 @ 05:22:01

    OOOH OOOH! And I just realized you’ll be at the Steampunk Worlds Fair! Now I’m really excited! A new book, and getting to say hi to the author is just icing on the cake!

  18. Anne Douglas
    May 19, 2011 @ 16:02:17

    Off to buy – how can I not for a fellow expat… and especially after seeing the book trailer *hilarious!*

  19. Marianne McA
    May 19, 2011 @ 17:52:38

    Didn’t work for me – though to be fair I didn’t get very far. I’d an evening a week ago where I had nothing to do but read, and I’d read an enthusiastic review, and decided to treat myself.Seemed exactly the sort of thing I’d like. But 23% of the way in, and I abandoned it to reread something else. (Which was considerably better than the Regency I’d also downloaded -‘Miss Timothy Perseveres’ – a rather tragic 2% )
    Perhaps it’s a sense of humour thing – I didn’t really find it funny, nor did it feel very historical, nor did the steampunk parts entrance me. The way the archives worked, for instance, just seemed unhandy.
    I dunno: maybe I’m too old for the subgenre. I didn’t like Zoe Archer’s books either, and they’ve had great reviews. (I did like Scott Westerfield’s ‘Leviathan’ though.)

  20. anned
    May 21, 2011 @ 10:59:41

    Finished this up this morning and cant wait for bk 2… which is when?

    It was like a mash up of torchwood/fringe/avengers (what i remember of it) for me. And I loved the hero who has hidden depths the heroine is only beginning to scratch… and the poanamu handles to her guns…showing that brash and enamoured of boombooms she might be, she has someones respect and love back in NZ to have such symbols mqde for her (assuming my assumption they were given to her was correct)

  21. anned
    May 21, 2011 @ 11:07:46

    Eeek sorry about the double up, i thought my ph wasnt sending and it was sending 2x

  22. Heather Greye
    May 26, 2011 @ 14:20:36

    Just finished this last night and am looking forward to the next book. It slowed a wee bit when we first got back to the archives, but after that, I wished my lunch hour was longer.

    For some reason, I think the image of Books is adorable.

  23. Sue
    Jun 05, 2011 @ 12:40:13

    I just finished the last page and was very disappointed … that I was at the LAST page, that is! :c) I absolutely loved the book and am so glad to hear that this is indeed the first book of a SERIES!

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