August 28, 2014 by mmileti
2014 has been a great year for innovative releases in speculative fiction, and the publisher Angry Robot in particular has put out a wonderful abundance of genre-defying novels this year. One of Angry Robot’s newest releases, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan, is no exception. This novel is the first installment of The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, and is Duncan’s first speculative fiction series. It is impossible to define the book within a single genre; instead it is a hybrid between alternate history, fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk, and Duncan masterfully weaves these different genres into a wonderful story with subtle but intricate world building. From the first chapter the story takes off on an action packed adventure filled with illusion, magic, mystery, and even a traveling circus. Duncan creates a heady bouquet of story elements that will leave the reader in dire need of the next novel in the series.
The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter is the story of Elizabeth Barnabus. Her world is an alternate historical England that has been divided into two nations, and is portrayed with a blend of Victorian era sensibilities and cultural influences, and futuristic technology. Elizabeth lives a double life; she dresses up as a fictional twin brother named Edwin in order to ensure a job as a private detective. When a Duchess from the northern nation, a place Elizabeth fled years ago, hires her to find a missing aristocrat who does not wish to be found (especially by the Duchess), she is suddenly swept up in the mystery of a hoard of arcane machines. To solve the mystery she must travel with eccentric members of a wandering circus, and face the ghosts of her past. In addition she will have to go up against rouges, self-proclaimed alchemists, and an agent of the all-powerful Patent Office; an institution that is highly averse to any technological innovation. The closer Elizabeth comes to solving this mystery, the more her life, and even the course of history, will change.
One of the most accomplished aspects of Duncan’s writing is his ability to impart a vast amount of world building and plot details to readers without overwhelming them with an information dump. Duncan weaves the details of the setting, the political climate, the nature of the world, and numerous other elements with a first-hand account of the protagonist’s past. This balance of characters, plot, and detail keep the story fast paced and engaging throughout the entire novel. I was very intrigued to come across an author whose writing was subtle and captivating in equal measure. Another benefit of this novel’s genre defying story and unique writing style is an appeal to a much larger audience than a regular steampunk novel. Fans of numerous types of speculative fiction, as well as fans mystery and alternative history, will find a wonderfully unique novel that also contains aspects of their respective preferred genres. This blend of the familiar and the strange will be sufficient to satisfy many different kinds of readers.
The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter sets itself apart from many other genre-defying novels with its well-chosen themes. I particularly love the theme of illusion, and how it plays such an important role in Elizabeth’s life and the world that Duncan has created. There is also a strong sense of Elizabeth defying the constraints of her culture. She is an extremely strong and well-developed protagonist, and she makes her own definition of what it is to be a woman, and of what a woman is capable of doing.
Though there are plenty of thought-provoking elements to the story, on the surface it is still a fun mystery set in a fascinating world. It is one of those books that the reader can really get out of it what he wants. If you are looking for intricate themes and innovative writing, then this is a great book for you. On the other hand if you are looking for a moderately fast paced mystery with magical qualities… well, then this is also a great novel to read. There are some places where the plot slows down significantly, but I found them to be few, and to not disrupt the story’s pacing. For example, after the initial excitement at the beginning of the novel, the story does slow down a bit in order for the reader to become familiar with the protagonist and her situation. But soon the action picks up again, and the reader begins to become immersed in the story rather than simply intrigued by it. Overall, it is a wonderful story that I would recommend to anyone even remotely interested in speculative fiction.
My rating: 7.75/10
I received a copy of this novel from Netgalley and the publisher, Angry Robot, in return for an honest review.