So the Angry Robot has been marching on dauntlessly and coming up with some pretty cool titles in the past few years. I am still catching up on my 2014 to-be-read books pile and so the beautiful cover for The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter from the Robots stable caught my eye. On a whim I started the first few pages and then without realizing it, I soon got around to reading it full-time – putting other books on hold. A good book does that to you. Immersive and real fun. That’s what the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was.
Rod Duncan’s entry into the speculative fiction/fantasy genre couldn’t have been better written. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter (A pretty title huh?) is a fast-paced mystery/adventure novel set in an gorgeously detailed alternate steampunk London with a plucky heroine as the lead protagonist with plenty of harrowing twists and hoops through Victorian England. Add illusion, magic and some amounts of science to this nice little potboiler – that just about starts to describe what this book is.
As the title suggests, it is basically the story of Elizabeth Barnabus, a bullet-catcher’s daughter. Now a Bullet-Catcher is typically a magician who performs this illusion of “catching a bullet” or large-scale spectacular illusions on stage. Elizabeth inherits a lot of the tricks of the trade from her dad and now lives a double-life – posing also as her brother, Edwin Barnabus, a private “intelligence gatherer”. We enter the tale right in the middle of her current assignment – with the Duchess of Bletchley who entrusts her to find her brother. The mystery of the missing brother deepens as Elizabeth soon realizes that it involves the notorious Global Patent Office – an international organization known for it’s ruthlessness and tyranny; The efficient officers are soon hot on her tail – and thus to get to the missing Duke. Also in to the chase are thrown in alchemists and some sinister shady characters from a travelling circus who would stop at nothing to get to this missing person. The leads takes her from the conservative Anglo-Scottish Republic – back into the flashier, edgier back-streets of the Kingdom in London – a place where she has fled from to escape her past. In getting to the bottom of this murky mystery – even as time is running out – apart from the cut-throat folks from the circus, she also has to face demons from her past, rise above the puritan cultural sensibilities of a society steeped in restrictions and tyranny and of course, find the missing man.
It’s a nicely set-up mystery that unfolds gradually as we go along. Rod Duncan’s world building is phenomenally done. Subtle yet hard-hitting. The details of the alternate England are slowly unravelled over the course of the novel. His writing is so immersive that it creates that whole Victorian atmosphere which I absolutely loved. Be it the dressing, the shifting volatile political climate, the cultural sensibilities and differences across the Republic and Kingdom – all of it really brings out the life and times that Elizabeth experiences. The traveling circus – Harry Timpson’s Laboratory of Arcane Wonders – is a wonderful nod to the fans of Carnivale and those few dark but racy chapters really upped the game for me.
Elizabeth’s story isn’t done. A post-note talks about her being a chief figure in the whole “Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire”. Teasing promises that really sets up the mood for the rest of the trilogy. Ultimately this is a unique genre-defining first book that sees an established crime-writer leap into and make his mark on the SFF scene. Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is a solid start to an entertaining, steampunk, alt-history novel featuring a street-savvy, witty and extremely capable heroine kick some ass and then some. And don’t miss the fantastic nuggets of truth – excerpts from the Bullet-Catcher’s Handbook at the start of every chapter. Absolutely killer stuff, really. This whole book is worth reading if only for those excerpts.