The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan, The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire #1
lives a double life—as herself and as her brother, the private
detective. She is trying to solve the mystery of a disappearing
aristocrat and a hoard of arcane machines. In her way stand the rogues,
freaks and self-proclaimed alchemists of a travelling circus. But when
she comes up against an agent of the all-powerful Patent Office, her
life and the course of history will begin to change. And not necessarily
for the better…
Last year and earlier this year I read some cross genre books that featured heavy fantasy, alternate history and science influences. It is perhaps better to say that they were like the books of China Mieville. Rod Duncan's latest books is precisely this, without the grotesque bits though, its a perfect blend of the "normal" and the arcane. The Bullet-Catchers Daughter is the first fantasy book written by Rod Duncan, before switching to fantasy he wrote 4 crime books that readily established him an wide audience. His first book, Backlash, was shortlisted John Creasey Memorial Dagger, the CWA Debut Dagger. Just upfront, Rod Duncan does a terrific job with The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter.
From the first sentence of The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter Rod Duncan readily throws you in the middle of the a well executed story. He doesn't hesitate one moment before he picks up the pace with some action. The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter starts up with introducing the double-life that our main protagonist Elizabeth Barnabus. Or actually it starts of with Edwin Barnabus (the other half of Elizabeth). He was asked by the duchess of Bletchley to search for her missing brother, a well known aristocrat as well as a set of arcane machines that have disappeared. Though Elizabeth/Edwin is an established an well known private detective this task will be the hardest one she has encounter so far. This all owing to the intricate world that Rod Duncan has built in his story. Elizabeth will find herself travelling between the border of the divided country of England. The border that separates the North from the south. Having to navigate herself through these hostile territories Elizabeth soon finds herself in the company of many strangers and "weird" people, and with such a division in England the question also remains as to who you actually can and can't trust. One other introdcution that readily makes Elizabeth's search that much more complicated is the agent of the (in)famous Patent Office. From the synopsis of the story you might think that this would just be another private eye investigation but let me tell that it is far from it, Rod Duncan has created an interesting and fresh storyline and the world that he created around it is just amazingly rich and very evocative.
I have read enough stories with female protagonists that feature as a detective in a book, but never one like Elizabeth Barnabus. Rod Duncan has managed to hit all the right snares to create a compelling an likable protagonist with Elizabeth. The part that will get you curious on the first go is the fact that she leads a double life with dressing up as a man and assuming the role as Edwin Barnabus. Why would she do that? Elizabeth is a very crafty person and plot her ways in the finest details to keep her double-life secure, however even with this utmost care a few people have managed to catch a glimpse of her but luckily it was all in a the heat of the action and she assumes this will be safe, but one never knowns. Getting back to Elizabeth's character, she lives in a divided England with definite Victorian influences added to this is are the steampunk, thaumaturge and arcane influences, what is most known to me from that time is that the women were always placed last, they only had to wear a dress, drink tea and chat. Well as you might have made up from the beginning this is far from the case for our Elizabeth, she defies these sets of rules every way she can. Not is a rebel kind of way but more in a way of seeking adventure and action. In the backdrop of the world in The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, Elizabeth's character works her own kinds of magic.
Next to the well executed main protagonist, Elizabeth, Rod Duncan readily invests time and effort in his secondary characters that pays off full time. Though the story is mainly told from the perspective of Elizabeth the secondary cast makes it all come together. Those that stand out are the characters from the traveling circus where Elizabeth meets up with introducing such a band in the world of The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter seemed to have readily invited Rod Duncan's imagination to take another play creating a set of intriguing characters to say the least. Another noteworthy introduction comes in the form of the agent of the Patent Office who plays a deadly cat and mouse game with Elizabeth. All the characters, be it the primary or secondary are shown in full swing, well designed and executed and readily help to draw a solid story and get the story further along.
You have heard me talking about the world of The Bullet-Cathers Daughter a few times already but I do want to stress that Rod Duncan did an amazing job with his world building. On the first read it might not really sound that impressive but once you let it all sink in, think back to earlier events and the surroundings you come to understand just how rich it is. So here is a bit of what it is like. The story of The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter is set just after the British Revolutionary war and the Luddite Revolution, with this Britian got divided into a Northern and a Southern. Dividing between Anglo-Scottish Republic and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales. The North side hates technological advance and the Royalists to the South do everything to get further. This causes a lot of friction in between the division and living isn't easy as seen by Elizabeth's adventures all through out the book. Added to this is the Patent Office, an order that will put an end to all technological advances that is unseemly... As you can hopefully make out of this is the fact that Rod Duncan has created a world that never stops to grow and never becomes boring, it's exciting and will leave you wanting more.
One other last bit that I want to mention is the way how the chapters are introduced, each of the chapters have a short sentence or wisdom line from The Bullet-Catcher's Handbook, which emphasizes the nature of illusions. It's those short quotes that really inspires you as a reader to think about the world even more and what is going on. Some of these quotes were either explanatory to earlier events but other made you stop and wonder how they could be explained an readily provoked you as a reader to stop and think. I am a big fan of such introductions.
The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter is off to a solid start. Rod Duncan has created a wonderful setting in The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter taking in account the big as well as the small things that are needed to make a world go round. He has struck a perfect balance between both highlighting the characters, from our main protagonist Elizabeth Barnabus down to the secondary characters, and the world itself, using bits and pieces of exisiting history spinning it in his own way by adding enough fantasy influences to make it one-of-a-kind. Angry Robot recently has released another book, The Buried Life, that left me with the same feeling. One where you would give everything to delve into the sequel! It is with these kind of books that make sure the fantasy genre is kept fresh. If you are looking for something new and refreshing make sure you read The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter, it's is everything you want and much more!