The Custodian of Marvels by Rod Duncan. Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe. Book Reviews
Angry Robot a small (by publishing industry standards), independent science fiction and fantasy publisher has a remit to look outside the usual comfort zone of the genres. This makes for some interesting reading, from the sometimes outrageous (Ishbelle Bee’s wacky and wonderful series The Peculiar Adventures of John Loveheart), to downright unsettling dystopias that make you seriously pause for thought (Matthew Abaitua’s If Then, the second book of a trilogy).
The Custodian of Marvels, the third book in The fall of the Gaslit Empire series by Rod Duncan and Steal the Sky, the first in the Scorched Continent series by Megan E O’Keafe, are two more examples of great writing coming out of this publisher. Although very different in content, both share the same great use of narrative voice, characters fleshed out by their actions and dialogue and the most nail-biting and exhausting action set in worlds that effortlessly form during your reading experience.
The Custodian of Marvels by Rod Duncan
The Custodian of Marvels finds heroine Elizabeth Barnabus relatively safe on a canal boat trying to make a hand to mouth living. ‘Relatively’ is the important word here as the wicked Mr Duncan (although not as wicked as the lascivious Duke of Northampton) places the much put upon Miss Barnabus in the most dire situations, with barely time to put the kettle on between each anxiety-inducing episode. Her highly risky life as a fugitive is compounded by the fact she is a woman in what is very much in a man’s world, where the only respectable woman is a married one and a professional woman is not just frowned upon but effectively illegal (certainly in the Luddite north). So given all these barriers to even being able to live a quiet life, it is no surprise to find that an old enemy from the circus stirs up things further when he persuades her to help him break into the supposedly impregnable International Patent Office.
Imagine an England where the Luddite revolution succeeded and technological advances are constantly being suppressed because they are considered to be ‘unseemly science’. The North is a Puritan society that particularly abhors advancement, including that of women. The decadent royalist south is little better, but asserts its control in far more subtle ways. Add a determined woman on the run who has had to pretend to be a brother she doesn’t have in order to make her way in the world, and you have a set up for a great deal of tension.
This is the type of book you do not start without a stash of food and drink piled up around you and with the understanding that ‘comfort breaks’ should be viewed as a major inconvenience. Elizabeth is plunged into every conceivable crisis with very little let up for a breather. Throughout all the books she has largely relied on her own wits and resourcefulness to extricate herself from all the dire predicaments. Not that there isn’t time for some romantic interludes for our pressed heroine. But the profession of the object of her increased heart rate puts the potential lovebirds on opposite sides of the law.
Given the number of anxiety-ridden climaxes in the book, the story could have become a dreadful muddle. But Rod Duncan’s writing is a joy because his pseudo late-Victorian narrative runs along the smooth rails of a framework powered by an invisible, but well-oiled word engine that hums away in the background making sure the reader gets all the thrills and spills while retaining a good sense of the story as it relentlessly barrels along. And of course, as everyone knows the most thrilling romantic episodes are conducted with the type of propriety that keeps one foot firmly on the floor.
Steal the Sky by Megan O’Keefe
Detan Honding, a loveable scoundrel and noble-born conman, has landed his ragbag airship in oasis city of Aransa and is up to no good. But you can’t help but love him. Dentan and his right hand man Tibs are after a bit of airborne class in the shape of the Larkspur, the airship of the exiled commodore Thratia. But the heist is complicated when a face changer, known as a doppel, begins working her way through the key members of Aransa’s government. The spate of murders results in mass paranoia that severely hampers Detan and Tibs patient setup for the theft. It also does not help that Dentan has a dangerous secret which can make his life as hot as the terrible ordeal of walking the black (an alternative sentence to beheading by axe).
‘It was a pretty nice burlap sack. Not the best he’d had the pleasure of inhabiting, not by a long shot, but it wasn’t bad either.’ There is a great deal of discussion about how important a first sentence in a novel is, and Megan O’Keefe’s has really nailed not only Dentan’s character, but the atmosphere of the whole novel in one deft go. That Dentan’s world has been likened to the short-lived, but well-loved FireFly TV series does not surprise me. Dentan certainly has qualities that remind me (in a good way) of Malcolm Reynolds the captain of the beat-up Firefly, which can only mean the reader is in for a great time as the two friends escape from one scrape after another by the seat of their pants.
There is a great deal of luscious description of Aransa which really gives some quality immersion in Dentan’s world without slowing down the plot. The dialogue is also excellent and really helps to flesh out the characters and get you emotionally involved with them. The politics of the world is complex and well-wrought. This is an ensemble novel, although the key perspectives are through Dentan, Ripka (Watch Captain Leshe to you) and the doppel, Pelkaia. This leaves you with a sense of either wondering what’s going to happen next, or shouting ‘oh no, watch out.’ I can’t wait to see what Dentan, Tibs and their gradually accumulated band of accomplices get up to next.