Gideon Smith works with his father as a fisherman. He yearns for adventures, wanting desperately to be like his hero, Captain Lucian Trigger of The World Marvels & Wonders. Trigger fights vampires and mummies in service of the Queen. Gideon doesn’t.
Until, one day, all his dreams start to come true and he finds out just what they’ll cost him.
There’s an enthusiasm to David Barnett’s work that’s clear from the first page. It’s a little like watching a really good cook at work, pulling ingredients from multiple locations and adding them by eye to create something that’s orders of magnitude better than anything planned into tedium. Its exuberant, energetic stuff that plays three card monte with you just long enough before hitting the big reveals.
A lot of that comes from the cleverly skewed world David creates. There’s hints of England in the Victorian era here and enough steampunk signifiers to make sure the book sits comfortably within the genre. But each one of them is used in a way far more interesting, and grounded than you might think. The opening chapter, dealing with an offshoot of the Jack the Ripper killings is a perfect example, setting a plot in motion that only surfaces again around the halfway point. When it does it feels like a tumbler turning in the lock, a gear change that sees the book speed up so smoothly you don’t feel it.
The entire book is like that. Gideon’s journey from reluctant adventurer to solid, upstanding hero is inevitable but never predictable. David does an excellent job of creating a hero who never gets something for nothing. Gideon is a brave, smart kind young man who has his life systematically cut away over the course of the book and finds, to his tremendous surprise, he’s still standing. There’s no call to adventure, no great destiny. Just a good human being standing up for those less fortunate than himself. He’s a hero long before he notices he’s one and that makes Gideon very easy to root for.
He’s also far from alone, and that’s the other strength of the book. David folds in a wide variety of supporting characters so easily and organically that they always share the spotlight but never steal it. The complex relationship between Bram Stoker and Countess Bathory is a particular highlight as is the magnificently profane journalist Mr Bent. They, along with the others not only reinforce Gideon’s heroism but define themselves against it. The new century is on the way, the country, and the world, need new heroes and even as Gideon’s role models are shown to be painfully human, he and his friends are positioned to take up the slack. It’s a smart way to set up a series and made all the more so by how morally complex their situation is. The Crown is far from blameless and the ending in particular implies future books will explore that in much more depth.
This is a complex world, filled with shifting agendas and there’s a welcome dose of darkness to the high adventure. Gideon’s heroic ideals and the pragmatic world he lives in look set to collide and, based on this book, my money’s on Gideon. He’s not a hero of the Crown. He’s better than that and so is this book. An excellent start to what promises to be a hugely ambitious, fun series.