Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett
Nineteenth century London is the centre of a vast British Empire. Airships ply the skies and Queen Victoria presides over three-quarters of the known world – including the East Coast of America, following the failed revolution of 1775. London might as well be a world away from Sandsend, a tiny village on the Yorkshire coast. Gideon Smith dreams of the adventure promised him by the lurid tales of Captain Lucian Trigger, the Hero of the Empire, told in Gideon’s favourite “penny dreadful.” When Gideon’s father is lost at sea in highly mysterious circumstances Gideon is convinced that supernatural forces are at work. Deciding only Captain Lucian Trigger himself can aid him, Gideon sets off for London. On the way he rescues the mysterious mechanical girl Maria from a tumbledown house of shadows and iniquities. Together they make for London, where Gideon finally meets Captain Trigger. But Trigger is little more than an aging fraud, providing cover for the covert activities of his lover, Dr. John Reed, a privateer and sometime agent of the British Crown. Looking for heroes but finding only frauds and crooks, it falls to Gideon to step up to the plate and attempt to save the day …but can a humble fisherman really become the true Hero of the Empire?
There are certain things that I think good genre fiction should always aim to be. Fantasy should be otherworldly, horror should unsettle. When it comes to the sub-genre of steampunk any plot needs to be exotic and evocative in equal measure. A reader is going to be looking for that slightly skewed version of reality. The story is going to be set in a world that manages to both be oddly familiar but also just that little bit strange. We need high-flying dirigible battles, vampiric bloodlust, ancient Egyptian monsters, sky pirates and, if we’re really lucky, a sinister conspiracy that has the potential to shake the British Empire to its very core. The good news is that Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl delivers all this and much, much more besides.
It’s always a genuine pleasure to discover the cast of quirky characters that inhabit a steampunk world. In this case it feels like the author has judged the mix of personalities just right. None of the characters that the reader meets feel shoe-horned in. Everyone inhabits their own little corner of the narrative and the various interactions all fit together to create a gratifyingly well-developed whole.
When we first meet Gideon he is a bit of an innocent. Having grown up in a small coastal village he is blissfully naïve when it comes to the outside world. When tragedy strikes he is compelled to seek answers. He sets out to uncover the truth, determined to reveal what is ultimately going on. I enjoyed that there is a very definite evolution to Gideon’s character. As the plot unfolds he is placed in various different situations that require introspection on his part. He needs to look inside and discover if he has what it takes to truly be a hero.
Lucian Trigger is also wonderfully observed. Having spent many years living a lie, he is almost the polar opposite of the man that Gideon expects him to be. With Trigger, the author has taken a stock steampunk archetype, the unflappable hero, and turned everything about him squarely on its head.
My personal favourite however, was Aloysius Bent of the London Argus. He is a delightfully un-PC creation, every utterance from his mouth is littered with expletives. A disgustingly uncouth newspaper reporter, he’s an A-grade platinum rogue, I couldn’t help but like him.
The rest of the eclectic cast are just as much fun. There’s Monica Fanshawe, the belle of the airways and the dashing Louis Cockayne, American adventurer. Maria, the mechanical girl of the book’s title, is ethereal and suitably strange when we first meet her. Her voyage of self-discovery acts as a wonderful counterpoint to Gideon’s. The final members of the group are a couple of historical personages, whom I’ll not name for fear of spoilers, suffice to say that they round things off nicely.
All the best steampunk stories, including this novel, manage to capture that sense of globetrotting exploration and adventure without ever breaking a sweat. From the isolated Yorkshire coastline to the hustle and bustle of Victorian London and then onwards to the Egyptian city of Alexandria the action dashes all over the place. Barnett never lets the pace flag and events move seamlessly from one place to another. Yes, yes I’ll even admit that when the various characters were on the move, I was picturing a large antique map with a red line moving between each key locale, possibly with some sort of John Williams’ soundtrack playing in the background.
There are some splendid little touches that I wasn’t expecting when I first started reading. There are a handful of perfectly placed geeky in-jokes dotted throughout the text. It was great fun to try and spot the various television and movie pop culture references, I think I got most of them. Everything from The Dukes of Hazard, to Jaws, and Indiana Jones receive a subtle nod.
While reading I also spotted a single throwaway line that suggests Gideon Smith will return. I do hope so, I’m already looking forward to Gideon and Co’s next adventure. Barnett has created an intelligent, fun and dashed entertaining read. Steampunk lends itself well to the episodic; the more instalments of this series the better as far as I’m concerned. Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl acts as a perfect introduction to a series that could be hugely popular given half a chance. If you enjoy your science fiction with lashings of derring-do and a good dollop of rip-roaring flare, then I suggest that you check this book out now. Highly recommended.
Gideon Smith and The Clockwork Girl is published by Snowbooks (UK) and Tor Books (US) and is available now.