Book Review: The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan
Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk
Series: Book 1 of The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire
Publisher: Angry Robot (August 26, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Angry Robot is making a comeback this fall with a couple of great titles, and The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is one gem that is deserving of a lot more attention. I really had no idea what I was in for going into this book, but even before the beginnings of the story was revealed to me, I found myself already captivated by the elegant writing style.
Rod Duncan brings the Gas-Lit Empire to life in this steampunkish tale of mystery and espionage, starring a female protagonist with a big secret. Elizabeth Barnabus is the single child of a “bullet-catcher”, a term used to describe stage magicians or artists known for performing large-scale or spectacular illusions, but she has used all the tricks of the trades to fool the world into thinking she has a twin brother. In the guise of her fictitious brother Edwin the private detective, Elizabeth sets out to solve the case of a missing aristocrat while dodging alchemists and shady circus folk as well as agents of the all-powerful and tyrannical International Patent Office.
Obviously, Elizabeth is a talented, capable and intelligent young woman used to solving her own problems, often in creative and ingenious ways. So forgive me for going on a mini-ramble here while I ponder on the trend of the “daughter-in-the-title” phenomenon; that is, I notice so many book titles that seem to follow this “The ________’s Daughter” formula these days, but I call it a ramble and not a rant because I think it amuses me more than it bothers me. I find it curious especially in this case, where Elizabeth is such an awesome character and being defined by her father’s profession clearly doesn’t do her enough justice! Besides being a master of disguise, she is also very adept at taking in a situation and making snappy decisions.
I’m also impressed with the way the author has created this world using very subtle means. Instead of throwing buckets of descriptive details in the readers’ faces, he instead uses the history he has crafted for the Gas-Lit Empire to great effect. By reading about the significant events that shaped the empire, such as the war that divided England or the rise of the Patent Office, I was able to piece together the culture and mood of this alternate universe. Sights and sounds can come across easily through words, but it takes a much rarer talent to convey the intangible such as the atmosphere of a setting the way Duncan does.
The mystery in this novel unfolds gradually, and though I wouldn’t call The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter a high-octane read, it does keep up a steady level of intrigue and suspense. It also has its moments, such as when Elizabeth runs afoul of a troupe of traveling circus performers and for a few chapters I was immersed in the dark side of circus life and became acquainted with many very interesting individuals.
With its unique setting and premise, this book embodies the essence of what I’ve come to expect from Angry Robot over the years. But I would still love to know more about Elizabeth as a character. Even though the story is told through her perspective in the first person, she seems to keep the reader at arm’s length. This might be an effect of the writing style, or perhaps something Rod Duncan purposely meant to do from the start, and if that’s the case, then it’s actually pretty clever. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for someone in Elizabeth’s place to maintain a detached attitude even as she is narrating her own story, given how she must protect the secret of her double-life from the rest of the world.
In short, this was a well-written novel, the story fantastically put together with elements of alternate history and steampunk, topped off with a strong, resourceful heroine. You can’t help but be drawn to Elizabeth Barnabus. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing her adventures in the sequel.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Angry Robot!