Gideon Smith is a hero of the Empire now, after his role in saving London from the Brass Dragon. That’s the official version anyway. The truth is far more complex; Gideon, while trained now, is still untested. More importantly, he’s a hero Of The Empire, meaning he goes where he’s told. But, when he’s called to assist in a matter in New York, Gideon finds himself crossing paths with the treacherous Louis Cockayne once again.
Mechanical Girl is a fantastically smart, fun piece of steampunk and here, with the worldbuilding out of the way, David rolls his sleeves up and cranks every, presumably brass, dial all the way up to eleven. As well as a continuation, and resolution, of the cliffhangers from the first book we get a detailed look at this universe and it’s far more complex, vibrant and realistic than even the first book suggested.
The key to that is the relocation to America. In this universe, it’s a patchwork of foreign interests with the Spanish, British and Japanese all holding the parts they want and doing their best to ignore the parts they don’t. This leads to the book’s first big idea; The Mason-Dixon Wall. Ostensibly a barrier between the North and South of the US it’s actually barely more than six feet tall and sparsely patrolled. The centre of America in this world is a blank canvas but it’s one that’s far less romantic than Wild West movies tend to favour. Instead. It’s a country where political systems clash and individuals are faced with the choice to stand and fight or compromise themselves for survival. That idea; personal freedom versus survival echoes up and down the book and it’s never stronger than in the sections dealing with the West and the mysterious figure uniting those overrun by the lawless forces of San Antonio, aka Steamtown. This is the first and only place the book skews openly supernatural and it works beautifully; simultaneously evoking exactly the old west tropes you want but laying them out in a very different and hugely fun way. The Zorro analogue we meet here, El Chupacabra, is the most fun take on the idea I’ve seen and I’m hopeful David’s not done with them or any of the other characters that aide Gideon, his reluctant journalistic chronicler Bent and ‘Stat pilot Rowena in their mission.
And there’s plenty of them too. The uneasy split on the American continent gives him the opportunity to not only place Gideon in a larger context but create a far more nuanced world than the traditional ‘Britannia rules the waves’ approach some steampunk leans on. Instead, the Empire here is not only a powerful force but one that’s far from unopposed and may very well not be entirely altruistic. The conflict between Gideon’s desires and his assignments is a clear moral dilemma that’s being set up as a major thread of the series and it makes the books something truly unique. There’s steampunk derring do by the ton certainly but there’s also a healthy dose of moral complexity and ambiguity, darkness when required and a lot of beautifully done character work. The payoff to the Louis Cockayne plotline in particular is fantastically powerful and, like the end of the first book, spins the entire series off in an entirely different direction and at a much higher speed.
Plus no one can do mayhem like David Barnett. As well as the gunfights, fistfights and chases he throws in a bracketing plot that is just joyously done. When Darwin being kept alive by an exo-skeleton is a minor plot point you know you’re in for a good time and the big finish here is a wonderful, immense action scene that, yet again, is grounded in the characters at its heart.
This is another great entry in one of my favourite series. It balances elements of espionage, action, science fiction, horror and steampunk to explore a world that’s both entirely different from ours and refreshingly morally complex. It’s a world that needs Gideon Smith, even if sometimes it may not deserve him and a world I look forward to returning to very soon.