Despite a few flaws, Phoenix Rising is a highly entertaining read that’s driven by the strength of its protagonists, Eliza Braun and Wellington Books; the mysterious allure of its femme-fatale, Sophia del Morte; and the evil genius of it’s villain, Doctor Devereux Havelock.
Eliza is a dashing heroine, reminiscent of the wonderful Emma Peel, from the 1960s TV show The Avengers. Both are intelligent, highly-skilled, and extremely well-dressed feminists who aren’t above exploiting their own sexual charms to attain the upper hand. While her relationship with Wellington replicates the same witty repartee and sense of sexual innuendo as that of Peel and Steed, Wellington is a far more bookish and charmingly awkward hero than John Steed ever was.
The characters are so well-developed, and their relationship is so perfectly established, that’s it comes as quite a shock to realise we’re nearly 100 pages into the story before anything significant happens.
Sophia del Morte is a femme-fatale of James Bond quality, while Doctor Devereux Havelock would be equally at home in any of the more far-fetched entries in that cinematic saga. The rivalry between Eliza and Sophia comprises the bulk of the novel‘s action, with gloriously choreographed fight scenes that see as many clothes shed as they do weapons introduced. Wellington and Havelock, on the other hand, are more intellectual adversaries, each with a deep and abiding respect for the other’s inventiveness and creativity. That’s not to say there’s anything lacking in their final confrontation, just that it’s all the more satisfying for the build-up.
Although the story never loses its sense of fun and adventure, the final 100 pages are decidedly dark. There are some scenes of sexual depravity that go far beyond anything hinted at in The Avengers or James Bond, and a few instances of violence that are as shocking as they are surprising. It’s all entirely fitting, however, and ably serves to illustrate the very real danger that Braun and Books are up against. More importantly, the time and effort invested in establishing their characters truly pays off here, with the dark secrets hinted at in their histories giving them the strength needed to carry out such a bold and daring ruse of impersonation.
As for the steampunk elements, they are used sparingly, but to great effect. In many cases, the gadgets are decidedly downplayed, and referenced more as an aside than as something of significance. Even the most startling inventions, such as the artificial legs of Eliza’s maidservant, are inserted quite casually, and only remarked upon after the fact. Those looking for the big, bad, bold use of steampunk technology, however, will be quite satisfied by the climactic revelations within Dr. Havelock’s secret lair.
My only complaint with the novel is the fact that a few characters and sub-plots are so carefully set-up in the early pages of the book, and yet are never satisfactorily explored. While it’s quite likely they’re setting up future entries in the series, the way in which they’re introduced leads the reader to expect more of an immediate pay-off, with the resulting absence more of a disappointment than a tease.
Overall, this was a great read, and one that more than lived up to my expectations. Hopefully, there will be more adventures with Braun, Books, and the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences to come.