Unseemly Science ( Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire # 2) by Rod Duncan

Elizabeth Barnabus continues to plot the downfall of the Gas-Lit Empire, being a pivotal cog in that wheel of Revolution and Unseemly Science, book two in the series by Rod Duncan transports us back to the wonderful Victorian-era England split into the Kingdom and the Republic.

The first book, Bullet-Catcher's Daughter was a pretty fascinating and solid read - giving us Elizabeth a spunky heroine leading a double life back in the Republic having escaped the clutches of the  notorious Duke of Northampton ( Still to make an appearance, guessing Rod's going to bring him in the finale!) back in the Kingdom who's had an arrest warrant out for her. Now Elizabeth ( and her false identity twin brother, Edwin) poses as an intelligence gatherer - with quiet some reputation in closed circles. However the events of the first book forces her into days of seclusion, leading a quiet life on Betsy, her houseboat moored in the Canal.

The second book opens with her witnessing the hanging of Alice Carter, the false duchess and then her protege Julia Swain - wanting to escape domesticity and marriage - signing up to volunteer for a new charitable organization in town. Run by the mysterious Mrs. Raike, Elizabeth egged on by Julia, decides to attend a volunteer march and the warning bells don't stop - as she suspects that Mrs. Raike is hiding more than what she is letting on. And then things come to a head - with a new law passed that would extradite the immigrants from the Kingdom living now in the Republic - back home. And then there are these letters from Julia - now in the northern stretches of the Kingdom, trying to solve the mystery of missing ice-blocks from the ice-farming community of Derbyshire.

To escape the clutches of law, Elizabeth flees to Derbyshire - along with some harrowing adventures on the way - and then realizes the mystery surrounding Mrs. Raike and the missing ice is much deeper and murkier than appears at the surface. How she comes across an "unseemly science" in uncovering this process and runs foul of some really vile guys forms the rest of the story.

Some characters from the first book reappear here - most refreshingly, John Farthing of the International Patents Office. Rod is playing it slow and steady with Elizabeth and John and I am pretty curious to know where the footsie dance is going to lead to. Julia Swain has a much larger role in this one but sadly, she still remains a character yet to strike a chord with me. A paler shadow, earnest student but nevertheless two-dimensional. New characters are introduced and chief among them that I loved was the pompous lawyer Yan Romello and his references to the "Piano falling from the sky".

The pace of this book is more sedate - in fact it takes about two-thirds of the story before it really starts to sizzle and simmer. The charm and mystery of the travelling circus from the first book is missing, Indeed, the ice-farming techniques of the Derby farms up north failed to hold the same level of interest for me. Another thing that sorely disappointed were the nuggets of truth from the Bullet-Catcher's Handbook. Here too, chapters started off with fascinating observations from both this handbook and another one called 'From Revolution' - but those lacked the biting stark feel as those in book-one. Let's just say some of the aphorisms or observations didn't sit well with me, maybe its just me. Elizabeth's suspicions about Mrs. Raike and her adventures with dodging the law by pure ingenuity takes up majority of the first half of the book. But where Rod departs from the first book significantly is the storytelling and headlong pacing by the last thirds. The atmosphere suddenly grows colder, darker and the tunnels within the ice-farms form the perfect setting for gothic horror. It's a lot more brutal - with the mystery surrounding the "Unseemly Science" being revealed to us in the final few chapters.

But Elizabeth still remains a fascinating character - spunky, bold and imaginative in her pursuit of truth and justice. Rod Duncan's world is fleshed out a little more by the second book and we know we are in for a calamitous ride before the Revolution tips things over. The author boldly touches on topics of gender equality and women empowerment - as Mrs. Raike's organization strives for these - but keeps the reading light and interesting. Fans of steampunk and alternate history are going to dig this mystery novel - that has shades of horror as well liberally thrown in towards the end. A solid addition to the Gas-Lit Empire series and I'm purchasing the ticket for the next stop for sure! 


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