Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

Rating 8.3/10
A great addition to the growing steampunk genre.

These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing washed up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences - the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and the unsettling will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest.... and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Welling Books, along with her into the perilous fray

For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun- he with his encyclopaedic brain and she with her remarkable devices- must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot ... or see England fall to the Phoenix.”

Phoenix Rising is written by both Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris and is the first book in the series “A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences”. What actually piqued my interest in this series was that it’s a steampunk series because I am a big fan of steampunk. On top of that it features the story of two agents fighting crime under the division of Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences! Could it get any better than this? Well when I read the name of the first chapter I knew I was in for a treat:

“Wherein our intrepid heroes meet for the first time and start off with a bang”

And it continues like this the rest of the way.

The first thing I liked about Phoenix Rising was that both Eliza and Wellington are not an agent duo from the start, but instead Eliza saves Wellington from a secret organization called House of Usher. It is a sudden and explosive introduction between the two agents which for me was an interesting start to the book. Everything is going according to plan for Eliza until she is called in by Dr. Sound to work in the Ministry archives. Alongside Wellington. Introducing the archives was an interesting way to transition from one part of the story to the next, especially when Eliza, while going through some unsolved cases, stumbles upon something from her past. Eliza and Wellington pack up their gear and venture out in an attempt to solve this case, but during their investigation they reveal the roots of something they had not anticipated.

Phoenix Rising revolves around the two main characters Eliza D. Braun and Wellington Books. Eliza is the type of agent who likes her guns to be explosive, while Wellington is the more reserved and “let’s think about it” type of agent. They are in many ways completely opposite of each other, but these differences work to complement each other. What they both have in common is a great sense of humor and wit, demonstrated many times through funny dialogue and actions undertaken. Taking a quick look at just Eliza you get to know her as a strong heroine, someone who is attached to her guns and nifty gadgets, and someone who will throw a stick of dynamite to speed up the opening of a door. She truly has a mind and will of her own. Looking at just Wellington, he comes across as stiffly British - a gentle hearted, tea drinking, book loving archivist who makes good use of reason and who tries to resolve each case as passively as possible. Reading through, it seems to me that both Wellington and Eliza have a dark hidden past. For Wellington, there are some paragraphs detailing the influence he received from his father. For Eliza, she is pretty wild but is she trying to hide something by being so radical? I don’t know if these dark suggestions were intended, but I do hope so!

So how could these two ever make a perfect duo? I think the answer lies somewhere in their first encounter, but also we get to see as the story progresses something growing between them, with Eliza shedding some of her wild feathers and with Wellington undertaking some action on his own accord. I found that the Phoenix Rising focused on using the storyline to develop the relationship between the characters, rather than focusing on the addition of flashy objects. For me, the strength of the characters is what made this story come alive.

With a great duo of agents you still need a nefarious organization to fight against, right? Well there are two actually that make an appearance in Phoenix Rising - House of Usher, and The Phoenix. Though we only get to know House of Usher during the beginning, there are some paragraphs that feature Wellington’s relationship with the organization, so I guess we might see them making reappearance in the coming books. Next up is The Phoenix. At first this organization did not seem like much of a threat… that is until you see what they do to their prisoners. The stakes are raised further when Eliza and Wellington are discovered by The Phoenix, which leads to one explosive dash to the finish. What I liked most about The Phoenix was how their somewhat dim-witted frontman was controlled by an evil scientist in the shadows. Also, fitting to the theme of the book, I liked The Phoenix’s plans for taking over England…

With Phoenix Rising, Phillipa Ballantine and Tee Morris have created a great addition to the growing steampunk genre and have given a new take on fighting crime. For me, the authors demonstrated a good grasp of the steampunk theme, although centering this story more around the characters rather than the setting meant that a true Victorian setting was not exactly represented. The focus on Eliza and Wellington allowed for funny and witty dialogue and action sequences, often leading to explosive conclusions. Lets see what the sequel has to offer.
Jasper de Joode, 9.1/10

I find steampunk to be a difficult genre when it comes to books. In graphic novels and films the aesthetic can clearly be seen, but when this has to be described to a reader it can often be far more underwhelming, and I have been searching for a really good novel that shows the darkness as well as the brassy gadgets. The Newbury and Hobbes books veered around the edges of this, but had more of a horrific element where humans and machines became merged. Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris however go full out with bulletproof corsets, evil secret societies, enough gadgets to shame James Bond and a bickering duo made up of the ‘colonial’ New Zealander and explosions specialist Eliza Braun, and a retiring, highly analytical and extremely Englishman, Wellington Brooks.

If what you’re looking for is an action-packed adventure set in Victorian society, this is what you will get. It actually is quite like a James Bond film with chases through the streets, scheming villains, stunning women who are thankfully far more independently-minded than the average Bond girl and in one chapter a showdown on stage at the Royal Opera House in the midst of the final scenes of Verdi’s Macbeth. I really liked it.

However, I didn’t love it, and maybe it is the very signifiers of steampunk which make it so predictable. There are airships mentioned, there’s an analytical engine, there’s a scene in the Crystal Palace, there’s an evil mastermind building steam automatons in his lair. I wasn’t surprised by anything in this novel, and with such a focus on action there isn’t any building of tension or particular atmosphere. If you have played Dishonored, that is the kind of darkness I’m looking for. This was far more flashy, but a fun read nonetheless.
Cat Fitzpatrick, 7.5/10

This Phoenix Rising book review was written by and Jasper de Joode

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