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Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett
Cover Artist: Nekro
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765334244
Date: 10 September 2013 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In 1889, in a steam- and clockwork-powered England where America never gained its freedom and Spain and France are interminably at war, a young fisherman daydreams about adventure--and is flung into a struggle to save London from a madman.

In Gideon Smith & The Mechanical Girl, David Barnett creates a world that is wonderfully realized and populated with terrific characters. Gideon Smith lives with his father in the remote fishing village of Sandsend, until one night his father's boat is found abandoned--just like a Russian vessel days later. What has taken the crew, and why? When a village boy Gideon knows encounters a monster in the fog, Gideon realizes things are truly dire and that Sandsend needs help.

He gets some assistance from an Irish novelist vacationing on the seaside, but is frustrated when the man considers his fears little more than grist for his next book. He hastens to London; en route, he finds himself at the home of an eccentric scientist (not in residence) whose fabulous creation, Maria, is the titular Mechanical Girl. Given sentience by some arcane means, Gideon helps her reach London in search of her creator. He intends to seek out Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire and protagonist of Gideon's favorite stories from the penny dreadful World Marvels and Wonders. Meeting up with a disreputable but clever journalist named Aloysius Bent, Gideon finds his hero...and a much greater mystery.

Meanwhile, the Irish writer encounters a Romanian noblewoman with a dark secret of her own, who is bent on revenge against the creatures that attacked Sandsend. They end up teaming up with Gideon and his allies during a fateful battle on the London riverside. A kidnapping soon after draws them to Egypt, the one common element to these bizarre happenings; they are forced to enlist the help of Rowena Fanshawe (Belle of the Airways) and then to contend with the Texan mercenary Louis Cockayne. After that, it is on to a fateful showdown with a hidden mastermind, with a race against time to save England.

Barnett's novel--the first in a series--weaves historical and fictional characters together in a setting that is a fascinating alternate London. In this world, the Statue of Liberty is now a flood barrier on the Thames, the Taj Mahal has been relocated to Hyde Park, and dirigibles provide both defense and transportation alongside steam-powered cabs and clockwork-driven fishing boats.

He loads the book with delightful Easter eggs, pop culture winks akin to what Kim Newman does in his Anno Dracula novels, even as his heroes plunge from one danger to the next. The pace builds steadily, from a rather sedate beginning in Sandsend as Gideon reads his penny dreadfuls and daydreams about adventuring with Capt. Trigger (who turns out to be a very real person), then to the intrusion of horror into his secluded little world which in turn forces him to seek help. It is classic Hero's Journey storytelling but Barnett's take is fresh and full of wonder, as Gideon comes to understand the larger world.

Gideon is stalwart and brave, with a head full of Trigger's adventures to call upon for inspiration, while Maria is an innocent with secrets she doesn't realize she carries. Despite being mechanical, she has a deep connection to the events in the story, which unfold and do not hold back for a "great reveal" at the end--rather, Maria's revelations feel organic and natural, and the mysteries around her origin are settled sooner rather than later.

Bent is often the comic relief of the story, but in a structural way, he is the Fool: he says things that make others laugh, or groan, or take offense, but his words are often wiser than even he knows. Likewise Louis Cockayne, who Gideon believes to be a friend of Trigger's, offers Gideon plenty of help but the circumstances of their meeting are not auspicious. Rowena Fanshawe is great as a plucky ship's captain who knows plenty about Capt. Trigger's supposed exploits, while the Irish novelist and his companion (whom I won't name so as not to spoil a surprise) develop a very complicated relationship with a surprising outcome.

First novels can be tricky things. Often the seeds of greatness are evident, even if the writing itself is not yet ready to serve them; here, that is emphatically not the case. Barnett's writing is assured, his plotting more than capable and his style reminiscent of Sabatini and Dumas. His characters leap off the page and as the action speeds up, the pages turn faster and faster. We can only look forward to his next book.

Highly recommended.

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