Phoenix Rising: In Which Tee and Pip Are My First Steampunk

Imagine the gritty world of Blade Runner, with all of its fantasy and science and punk vision of society. Now change the setting from a future Los Angeles to Victorian-era England.  Now take the replicants and hovercars and weaponry and imagine if they were all powered by pressurized steam instead of electrons.

That’s the way I’ve been able to understand the subgenre of steampunk.

I’ve been curious for some time about the allure of this science-fiction/fantasy subgenre, from buzzing on the internet to the plethora of costumes at events like Dragon*Con. When authors and podcasting giants Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris released their new novel, Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising, I decided to take the plunge into the world of cogs, corsets, and airships.

The story itself is rather simple and linear, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite refreshing for what is essentially a spy novel, complete with action, suspense, and a hearty degree of intellect. Modern espionage tales try to layer double-crosses and intrigue to the point that all those plot twists shroud the very essence of the plot. I never felt that Phoenix Rising was trying to mislead me or confuse me at any point.

The tale focuses on our two heroes, Wellington Books and Eliza Braun, both secret agents in a clandestine branch of the Monarchy that investigates the peculiar, be it the occult or the supernatural. I thought of it as Indiana Jones and the Torchwood Institute combined with Her Majesty’s Secret Service from the James Bond series.

Agent Books is the embodiment of Q, a master of gadgets and gizmos, working as a librarian—pardon me, Archivist—in the bowels of the Ministry. Agent Books doesn’t seek action or adventure because he finds it in the case files he meticulously organizes like clockwork, nine to five, Monday through Friday. He’s prim and proper head-to-toe, armed with a dry wit, and sips a lot of tea. On the surface, Wellington Books is a rather boring guy.

Books is balanced with the spirited Agent Braun from New Zealand, who is the James Bond of the story. Quite honestly, she starts the story as more of a Daniel Craig than a Sean Connery. She goes into action like she’s a one woman wrecking crew, armed to the teeth while wearing a bulletproof corset, and takes no prisoners. She loves her drinks and loves her job, but she’s scarred by the loss of her former partner and her methods get her in trouble with her boss.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Crown’s fate rests in the hands of a renegade and a librarian.

The story revolves around a secret society that threatens the sanctity of the Empire. Eliza has firsthand knowledge of the case because it was what drove her former partner—with whom she was incredibly close—to become a permanent resident in the local asylum. After her scolding for the events of the first chapter, she’s relegated to the less action-packed Archives to learn about the other side of the Ministry from Agent Books. While there, she discovers that the case that claimed her partner is still unsolved and that both she and Books are linked to the happenings. The plot elegantly progresses from there.

The story shifts into high gear from the very beginning and stays there for 400 pages. Tee and Pip swap chapters, bouncing points-of-view from Books to Braun while including very deep character development and growth. The story is also presented in more of the proper British English format, keeping the U in “flavour” and really immersing readers in the Victorian setting. It also keeps the reader in the same mindset as the protagonists, discovering each clue as they do. The only breaks from that formula are the short chapters that expand on the antagonists and their shadowy machinations. These interludes also lay down hints and threads for potential sequels, which are rumored to be in production now.

For my first foray into steampunk, I’m very impressed. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as they arrive.

Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising is available in bookstores everywhere in both physical and digital formats. This review is based on a personally-purchased copy.

Back to Writing

One of my resolutions for the new year was to spend more time writing.  2010, while tumultuous overall, got really busy near the end of the year, and as a result NaNoWriMo took a backseat.

Creative Progress Ticker

Perdition’s Progeny:  First draft — 1,723 words — (+1,723)
Pro Patria:  First draft — 47,716 words — (+2,044)
“Book Three”:  Outlining

Elemental:  Researching

Project “Ark”:  Concept

Project “John”:  Concept

Project “Recursive”:  Concept

Project “D Christmas”:  Researching

Project “Democ”: Concept

Project “Button”:  Concept

“Millennium” (Scapecast article):  Concept
Various other Scapecast articles in development

“Meruva”Submitted — 12,433 words

“The Lessons of Lucasian Vision” is Published

Recently, started a program for publishing listener editorials about Star Wars. is the center of activity for the 2010 Parsec Award nominated Star Wars-themed podcast called The ForceCast.

You can find “The Lessons of Lucasian Vision” here.  Please leave your comments either here or at

The Cycle of Repeated Foisting

Story-teller and general wordherder-for-hire J. C. Hutchins tweeted about a blog entry by Charles Stross that got me thinking. In the blog, Mr. Stross talks about how he’s annoyed with “glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of and io9.” Particularly, he’s upset because he believes there’s far too much of the genre on the market, and that the genre is running the risk of obsolescence due to the “second artist effect.” Apparently, that’s basically copycat storytelling.

Now, here’s my disclaimer: I don’t read steampunk, mostly because I’ve never had the opportunity to pick up anything in the genre. I’m not disinterested – in fact, I’m rather interested based on the costumers I see at Dragon*Con – but rather swamped in higher priorities. But, in fairness, it wasn’t the genre aspect that captured my attention with this blog post.

My first contention is the idea that anyone is “foisting” anything on anyone. Last time I checked – which was one paragraph ago for those keeping score at home – no one was holding a 9mm Beretta to my temple and forcing me to read anything, let alone io9 or Tor. While this isn’t his chief complaint, I’ll still coming back to it later.

My second contention was that this complaint, however well-researched and thought out it may be, is a reminder of the short-term memory issues of the internet and the cyclic nature of markets in general. I quite clearly remember complaints of a similar nature about vampire fiction, military science fiction, urban fantasy (particularly those with “headless” women on the cover), sword/sorcery/epic fantasy, and even bodice-ripping romance novels. Let’s face it, folks: Any market, whether it is stocks or novels, will balance itself out by the principles of supply and demand. If you put a lot of widgets on the markets, the cheap low-quality versions usually get snapped up first in the initial rush.  After R&D takes over, higher quality widgets hit the shelves, people buy those, the reviews show how much better they are, and the cheapos are dumped. Replace “widget” with “book” and see how it works.

Since io9 and Tor aren’t holding me hostage, I’m not obligated to buy and/or read every steampunk/vampire/zombie/whatever novel on the market. I am free to choose the ones I want to based on reviews and advice, resulting in the best bang for my buck when it comes to entertainment in a different world. As I mentioned to J.C., the crap will settle to the bottom and eventually get buried while the stars rise and shine. This goes for every market, not just books, which is why houses nobody wants are eventually torn down, lemon cars don’t go very far, and craptastic movies usually don’t make back their budgets.  There are always bottomfeeders who love the refuse and keep our ocean clean, but they’re not the prime market.  They just keep Tor’s lights on.

I don’t disagree with Mr. Stross that there is a lot of junk out there, but the truth is that there always will be, just as there will always be posts like his and mine that highlight the pros and cons of that constant. What I do disagree with is that it is the end of the world. Cyberpunk and vampires will return, just like James Bond and bellbottoms. If there is a demand, supply will eventually catch up to match it, and no amount of garbage will prevent the diamonds in the rough from eventually surfacing and shining.

The junk is a necessary evil.  Wade through it, pick out the good bits, and keep moving.  If the shelves are full of junk and you want something better, then do something about it.  After all, necessity is still the mother of invention, isn’t it?

Obligatory Update Post

In the sinusoidal motion of existence, life turns into a cycle of feast or famine.  Recently, I’ve seen famine.  Not in the food sense, though I could probably survive for a while… that is until these trips to gym start paying off again.

No, life’s been relatively calm of late.  Hence, no updates.

I am working on my Dragon*Con report which will be posted here.  I’ve also been playing around with the idea of getting back into short story fiction, including submissions to an anthology and an e-zine.

So, yeah… calm with chance of continued work.

Quick Writing Update

I spent a little time back in the universe tonight.  I missed it and needed it after a long couple of days on travel for work.  It’s small progress, but it’s also a rather tricky spot for me.  I’ve also been brainstorming on my NaNoWriMo project.

Creative Progress Ticker

Perdition’s Progeny:  Outlining
Pro Patria:  First draft — 45,672 words — (+595)
Bhriar’s Blade:  Outlining

Elemental:  Researching

Project “Ark”:  Concept

Project “John”:  Concept

Project “Recursive”:  Concept

Project “D Christmas”:  Concept

Project “Democ” [NaNoWriMo]: Concept

“Meruva”: Submitted — 12,433 words

Provocative Quote of the Day

Provocative quote of the day, courtesy of Lieutenant Colonel Jay Stout, USMC, retired:
“My Air Force compadres, darn them, did such a great job of engaging the Iraqi fighters as they got airborne that I doubt an Iraqi aircraft got within 50 miles of a Marine Corps aircraft. So we had to satisfy ourselves with tearing up forces on the ground.”

I heard it on “Remembering The First Gulf War, 20 Years On” on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  While it’s definitely Marine-speak, I wonder if certain people should never be allowed in front of a microphone in public forum.  Listening to it, I’m sure LtCol Stout meant it humorously, but the joke fell flat.  He tried a couple of other bits of military humor, but what some of my friends in uniform fail to realize is that civilians don’t understand it.  Unless you’ve experienced it, most military humor feels barbaric at worst.


In other news, my brain’s working overtime on another story idea. Yes, brain, I’m listening.

Creative Progress Ticker

Perdition’s Progeny:  Outlining — (no change)
Pro Patria:  45,077 words — (first draft) (no change)
Bhriar’s Blade:  Outlining — (no change)

Elemental:  Researching — (no change)

Project Ark:  Concept — (no change)

Project John:  Concept — (no change)

Project Recursive:  Concept — (no change)

Project Christmas:  Concept — (no change)

Project Democ: Concept — (added)

Red Dragon and Writing Updates

After purchasing the series a few years ago, I decided to start reading the Hannibal Lector novels by Thomas Harris.  I’ve seen Manhunter once, which was based off the first book Red Dragon.  I haven’t seen the remake yet, even though I own it.  I’ve seen the sequel Silence of the Lambs a few times, and Hannibal twice.  I don’t remember much from Manhunter since I saw it — how long is it now? — I’d say close to a decade ago, but I’m almost eager to watch it and Red Dragon just to compare some notes.

I just finished reading Red Dragon and started into Silence of the Lambs.  I am amazed at how addicitng the novel was.  I’ve actually lost sleep, and not from the dark subject matter, but because I really wanted to know what happened next.  Reading it also gave me several ideas on how to effectively make some of my characters significantly darker.  One of my weakenesses in writing is developing dark, troubled, or deliciously evil characters.  Dolarhyde was most certainly two of the three, and Lector picks up the slack by embodying the rest.  Graham was also a great template for a troubled and/or haunted protagonist.

What I really didn’t like was the way things wrapped up in the book.  It felt almost like the typical plot device for any slasher flick.  Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.  The other nit-picky thing is how Harris shifts from descriptions in the present tense to progressive action in the past tense.  Such as “Lector’s cell is blah-blah-blah” instead of “was“.  I’ve never read anything like that before, and as a result, it kind of pulls me out of the experience for a minute until I readjust.

I don’t recall if I have the book or film of Hannibal Rising around here.  I may have picked the DVD from a bargain bin once.

Quick update on my writing status:

Perdition’s Progeny:  Outlining
Pro Patria:  45,077 words (first draft)
Bhriar’s Blade:  Outlining

Elemental:  Researching

Project Ark:  Concept

Project John:  Concept

Project Recursive:  Concept

Project Christmas:  Concept

I have a short story entitled “Meruva” that I submitted to a podcast author for an anthology.  As far as I know, the project is currently on hold.  I also have several articles in various states of completion for The ScapeCast.

Anyway, back to it.