I realize the title is a bit misleading. The use of the word 'virgin" says that I have never tried steampunk literature before. Truth be told, I have dabbled a little bit, with varying results. I've enjoyed the two novellas in the Chronological Man series by Andrew Mayne. But I also found myself feeling a bit disappointed in The Steampunk Detective by Darrell Pitt, as well as the first volume of the Rodger Dodger series by Tonia Brown. So, needless to say, steampunk was not a genre I sought out very often while perusing the virtual shelves of Amazon.com. I guess that doesn't really make me a steampunk virgin. More of a steampunk experimentalist.
A few weeks ago, however, I had the opportunity to meet Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference in New York City. Pip and Tee are the authors of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series. Beside them both being delightful people to speak to, they were also great enthusiasts of steampunk, to the degree of dressing up in costume for the steampunk panel in which they were a part of at the conference.
So, before I go too much further, perhaps I should talk for a moment about what steampunk actually is. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery (thank you Wikipedia). Stories in steampunk are often set in an alternative history of the Victorian era of the 19th century. The term steampunk also refers to any artistic styles, clothing fashions, or subcultures that have developed from the aesthetics of steampunk fiction. H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and even Mary Shelley are examples of some of the earliest steampunk writers.
So, after spending the evening talking to Pip and Tee about beer, Greek restaurants, writing, and steampunk, I decided to give the first book in their Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series a whirl.
The book, entitled Phoenix Rising, doesn't waste any time in getting into the action. The "explosive" start introduces us to field agent Eliza D. Braun from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences as she rescues a fellow agent who was recently kidnapped by the evil House of Usher. The fellow agent, Wellington Books, is the Ministry's librarian, oh, sorry, I mean Archivist. And, with that begins a challenging new partnership between Books, the well-to-do man of words, and the fiery Braun, a "lady" of action (note that lady is in quotations). A pair has never been more opposite than these two, and when they're assigned to be partners, the sparks start to fly, both figuratively and literally.
When all is said and done, Phoenix Rising was a truly enjoyable read. It was well-paced, with just the right mix of humor and action. The banter between Books and Braun is highly entertaining, particularly while the two new partners are getting to know each other. Ballantine and Morris do an excellent job creating the steampunked world of 19th-century England without going too far over the top. What do I mean? In the few steampunk tales that I have read, often the author goes to great lengths to add in every conceivable steampunk technology that they can think of, sometimes pushing things so far that one just has to stop and say "no way". However, in Phoenix Rising, the technology, although present, always takes a backseat to great character development and an intricate storyline. It is definitely steampunk, but Ballantine and Morris made sure that the characters and the story stood on their own.
Phoenix Rising makes for an excellent point to begin one's journey into the world of steampunk. It is entertaining, captivating, and down right fun to read. All I need now is a long frock coat and a pair of goggles, and I'm ready for my first steampunk convention.