Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Long have I looked forward to having this novel in my hot little hands, but longer still did I wait, after having it, to read it. But only by about a month or so.

For the most part, it was worth the wait, though I did despair a tiny bit at first. While I can't say that Phoenix Rising gets off to a slow start (on the contrary, it very self-consciously and deliberately starts, quite literally, with a bang), it does get off to rather a false one, as we come in at the end of a prior adventure, knowing nothing that is going on but getting to peek in on a daring rescue and escape -- from Antarctica, no less. Which is to say we are firmly in Indiana Jones territory, here.

And, like in the chronicles of Dr. Jones, we have a bit of a lull after the prologue's pyrotechnics. The bossman is far from pleased with how that rescue/escape was conducted, and also, of course, that it was necessary at all, and jets have been ordered cooled, to rather dull effect, however sparkling the banter between our two heroes is supposed to be.

Fortunately, things pick up after a bit.

In our two heroes, Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, we seem for most of the novel to remain in Indiana Jones territory, character-wise, if there were some way to split that territory rather neatly in half. Books, as his surname suggests, partakes of Dr. Jones' rather tidy, intellectual, academic side, attending lectures, cataloging and studying artifacts and documents, tinkering a bit. The distaff side of the partnership, Braun, partakes of the buckled swash, all smart assery, armed to the teeth, flirtaceous, action-oriented and impatient with the dullness she sees as comprising Books' entire existence. When their boss, the wonderfully named Dr. Sound, re-assigns her to Books' domain, she takes it as punishment and grouses over it for just long enough to really slow down the narrative.

Just as the reader is starting to nod off, though, Ballantine and Morris get around to what they really wrote this book for: to ape not Indiana Jones but Sherlock Holmes, if Holmes had lived in an alternate steampunk universe with Babbage engines at his disposal, and if Moriarty had been able to sic not just gorgeous lady assassins but also bio-mechanical monstrosities on him. This without straying, in their romp through literary madness and mash-ups, into the territory of the loathsome works of Seth Graham-Smith, for which I vigorously applaud them.

Speaking of loathsomeness, I've seen a few reviewers make allusions to Stanley Kubrick's really not-so-wonderful Eyes Wide Shut when writing about Phoenix Rising, and the criticism is a fair one. The one of the two conspiracies Books and Braun are rather more effective at penetrating has a penchant for what amounts to Victorian key parties, which is possibly meant to be saucy (as Braun is herself rather saucy, demonstrating many times throughout the novel that she is not above using her feminine wiles to achieve what her pistols and stiletto-bladed hair ornaments cannot) but comes across as rather shockingly creepy in a novel that up to that point has felt like a relatively light-hearted adventure romp, though this perhaps cushions the blow the reader gets when that conspiracy's real secret is discovered. I still have the willies from THAT.

Handled by lesser writers than Ballantine and Morris, this might just be cheap pulp fiction, but individually they both have a lot of good work under their belts and it shows in the appealing character dynamics they have built between Books and Braun. I know both of the authors personally and can't help, as I'm sure they wouldn't have even thought of trying to prevent, imagining each of them in the roles of their heroes, whose banter is reminiscent of that I have enjoyed over evening cocktails and bleary-eyed Panera breakfasts at Balticon.

Thanks for the ride, guys. Save me a seat on the next one?

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