The first Gideon Smith adventure was one of my top 3 reads for 2013. Exciting, adventurous, and exceptionally well-told, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was part steampunk science fiction, part old-fashioned horror story, and part penny dreadful romp around the world. I enjoyed every aspect of it, from the concept to the characters, and came away wanting more. Fortunately, not only was there room for a sequel, but the cliffhanger ending absolutely that demanded it.
Here we are, just over a year later, and David Barnett has delivered admirably on those sequel demands with Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon. This installment swaps out the old-fashioned horror for old west adventure, but adds even more steampunk science fiction to the mix. It's a book that surprised me several times with the direction it took, avoiding the genre clichés towards which it seemed to be teasing us, and (of course) setting up several plot threads for a third book.
The story opens with a mechanically augmented Charles Darwin, marooned in the lost world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, slowly succumbing to rust and ruin. He and Stanford Rubicon are the last survivors of the HMS Beagle II, with the rest of the crew having either fallen to their deaths or been eaten by dinosaurs. Just when all seems lost, they are rescued by Mr. Gideon Smith, "Hero of the effing Empire," and Aloysius Bent, his chronicler for World Marvels & Wonders. From there, we briefly follow the heroes home to England, only to dispatched just hours later to the shores of America, where the brass dragon (and, presumably, Maria) have been spotted.
It's in the alternate history of America that Barnett's second adventure really shines. The Mason–Dixon isn't just a line here, it's a solid wall to rival that of China's great one. The America to the north is one of skyscrapers and dirigibles, still loyal to the Queen; while Texas, Louisiana, and the Confederate states to the south are lawless, old west towns full of slavery, prostitution, and black magic. As for California, it was ceded to the Japanese long ago, with the remnants of Spanish occupation still putting up a good fight around them. It only takes a few small twists in the history of the American Revolution to create this world, with at least one forgotten hero making a surprise return later in the story.
The fact that Gideon does find Maria and the brass dragon should come as no surprise, but the ways in which she has changed certainly do. At the risk of spoiling the story, I won't say much about her role, except to say the Japanese provide a worthy foe . . . and there is an escaped Tyrannosaurus Rex to be dealt with. Rowena Fanshawe once again gets to play heroine of the airways, while Louis Cockayne's story is brought full circle with a very satisfactory revolution. Bent doesn't have as much to do this time around, but he's an effing marvelous for sarcasm and comic relief.
While I didn't enjoy Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon quite as much as the first book (it's pacing is slower, and America is a distant second to Egypt in terms of setting), it's still a great read that has left me hungry for a third helping. What further surprises or settings Barnett may have in mind, I have no idea, but I'll hazard a guess that the oft-referenced Jack the Ripper may finally pit himself against Smith and team.
Paperback, 336 pages
Expected publication: September 16th 2014 by Tor Books