Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Te Karanga

New Zealanders are, in general, a fairly odd sort of folk. Of course I'm allowed to say these sorts of things, being that I am one, but it's relevant to the post because I'm actually trying to do something constructive and write a little review of a book I read just recently.

Now, although I've had vague intentions of reading this book for months I only got around to it because I heard mention of a competition run by the authors, and though I knew it was too late to get into that I went ahead and ordered the book in question anyway. It's called Phoenix Rising, and it's the first book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. The second's out sometime this year, I believe, and yes I will be laying my hot little hands on it. But the other reason I wanted to have a read was because one of the protagonists is a New Zealander.

When you come from New Zealand, you tend to have...a weird relationship, with seeing your country or your people on television or in cinemas or in books. It's...not common. I mean, we have our little publishing houses and film/television studios, but it's not a huge thing. I mean, the first time I saw London I was a bit agog because the whole city's like a giant filmset come to life, in my mind. I presume I'd think the same of New York, if I ever get there (yes, I am still bitter about the hurricane, shut up). I mean, I go overseas and can't go three streets without tripping over a fellow Kiwi on their travels, but in terms of popular mass don't see a lot of New Zealanders around the place. Or much of New Zealand, to be honest. (I still cackle about one of the few times I've seen Dunedin in print, it was named for its proximity to R'yleh. I always KNEW it was a hellhole, but come on!)

Still, although Phoenix Rising is set in ye olde londontown, in the late eighteen hundreds, one of the two protagonists is Eliza Braun, and she's a New Zealander. Actually, they name her by what proves to be both something of a descriptor and a perjorative -- she's a "colonialist." Which I found mildly hysterical for a couple of reasons, but mostly because my automatic reading of the word is in a Māori accent with a couple of added adjectives, as in "bloody thieving colonialists." Oh, dear. And before you look at me askew, by birth I myself am a Bloody Thieving Colonialist; my direct heritage is Scots and English, not to mention I have English ancestors who moved to Ulster at a time when the Irish didn't much care to have the English dropping by the neighbourhood. It's in my blood, obviously. With that said, as a Kiwi who has lived in the UK, it's far more common for us to be named as Antipodeans, which is also hysterical in that our true antipodes actually only make landfall in Spain. Er. I've also been asked if "Kiwi" is an insult, and been looked at truly askew for naming my ethnicity as Pākehā. God, I love being a New Zealander.

But yes, Eliza's a Kiwi, and you can tell by both her speech and her action. She's adorable, although she's also a femme fatale, as such. She has an armoured corset, for crying out loud. Although I was most charmed by her vanity pounamu pistols, set with hei-hei. It's such a lovely little detail that probably just sounds cool to non-Kiwis, but sets our little hearts a-flutter. I also enjoyed the fact that when Eliza got well and truly plonked she decided to sing the national anthem, much to Books's dismay. I personally have no idea when the thing was written, but it was a lovely little touch. Because honestly, drunk New Zealanders in London? Will reel around with their baffled British mates singing songs from the homeland no-one but us has ever heard of. Ha.

One thing I did have a giggle at, though, was the way Eliza's colleagues called her a "pepperpot." And while Eliza is indeed a fiery redhead with luscious curves, carries knives, and has explosive theory down pat, when English blokes talk about pepperpots I only get one mental image. Oops.

But instead of going on about my love for a countryman, I should talk about the actual story. It's a solid steampunk adventure, in which the odd couple are thrust together due to circumstance and forced to work together to save the Motherland from certain doom at the hands of a shadowy secret society (NO ROMANS ALLOWED...sorry, Rory). From that you can see it's a very straightforward story; this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it's told well, but there weren't a lot of surprises. I still enjoyed the ride, though it was mostly for the characters we met along the way.

I've already extolled Eliza, so onto Books -- and you can guess from the name combination of Books and Braun that Books is the brains and Eliza the brawn. There is a bit of irony, too, in that Books's first name is Wellington; Eliza never mentions where she's from, from memory, but Wellington IS the capital of New Zealand. Or at may have been, then? Our capital moved a bit in the early years (and considering some clever bint built Wellington on a major faultline, it's still a bit Howl's Moving Castle for some people). With that said, whether Wellington was the capital then or not, the steampunk history of the piece means it's an alternate reality to our own. I mean, Prince Albert died in some sort of crazy experiment, for starters. And there are AIRSHIPS. Everyone loves AIRSHIPS.
...and I'm shunting aside poor Welly here. Er. He's quite lovely in his own right; I have a softness for his kind of character, and he's basically Ianto Jones. Which dovetails neatly with the fact that I was expecting this to be all a bit Torchwood...which it was, and wasn't. (I'm not saying that it's aliens, but...actually, it wasn't aliens.) I'm not actually a fan of Torchwood, it was just...all flash and no pay-off, and went so hard on the fanservice that I imagine even Misato Katsuragi would have been "Dude, too far." Phoenix Rising did have a moment where I had to think Captain Jack would have been In Like Flynn, but overall it was far more solid and therefore a far more enjoyable read.

I'm trying not to be too spoilerish here, I guess, so I should probably get around to shutting my mouth. But it's safe to say that this was a fun read, for all it mostly kept to the tropes of the genre rather than subverting them. I'd like to see a little more of that, really; it would mix the pace up a bit, and keep me guessing. As it was, I knew where there book was going pretty much from the get-go, though I did have one surprise I won't mention just so I don't ruin it for anyone else. The writing style is also very easy to read, and is so strikingly visual I actually have to wonder if the book wouldn't be better as either a graphic novel or a film. Which isn't to say it doesn't work as a novel, because it does -- it's just that I have to think the personalities of Books and Braun would lend well to a more visual medium. (This series needs a massive fandom. IT NEEDS MASSES OF FANART, DAMMIT.)

So, this review has been utterly muddled and you probably wonder what on earth I actually thought about the book. I liked it. I really did. Despite the fact I found the story to have few true twists, the characters were compelling enough to keep my attention -- and it really is the characters I come for. Eliza was just a wonder from the start, and Wellington joined the party with some lovely character development over the novel that made it all worth it. So, I'd say if you want a nice steampunk read, give this one a whirl. I'm definitely waiting for the next one to make landfall soon. <3

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