Even if I hadn’t loved The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, Book #1 in The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire series by Rod Duncan, I would have fallen for the book cover for Unseemly Science. I love clever art work that seems straight forward at first glance but that suddenly causes me to do a double take like this book cover does. Of course I’d also been anxiously awaiting a sequel to Book #1, so I could hardly wait to dig into Unseemly Science. There’s a link to our review of Book #1 at the bottom of this review for those of you unfamiliar with it.
If you haven’t read The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, you could read Unseemly Science as a stand-alone; however, I think you’d benefit greatly by having read the first novel. Once you do that, you’re going to be hooked on this series anyway if you like steampunk elements, alternate universes, nasty political intrigue, a strong heroine who refuses to be pigeon-holed by society, and/or lots of fun Sherlock Holmes style detecting…among other things. Well, you get the idea – there’s a lot going on in this series and it makes for one hell of a good read!
A Little Background: What if the Luddite Rebellion had been successful? In an England split into two sovereign countries after a brutal civil war, technology and all mechanical devices are forbidden. In this new world order, Elizabeth Barnabas lives a double life as a fugitive, both as herself and as her detective brother while she searches for answers she needs to escape her fate. She is determined to clear her inventor father’s name and reputation, and to get revenge on a powerful Duke who falsely accused him, destroyed her family, seized her father’s arcane patents, and tried to make her his slave. Because women are considered purely ornamental in her world, she can best accomplish this by posing as her non-existent brother and also earn enough to survive. That said, it often puts her in great danger. The author has a web site dedicated to the Gas-Lit Empire, which you can explore by clicking here. Now, on to the review of Book #2…
Elizabeth knew the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook was a dangerous thing to have but then something happened that made her realize on a more visceral level just how dangerous. Alice Carter, known as The False Duchess, is arrested and Elizabeth is in the crowd when Alice is brought to the scaffold and hanged. To say Elizabeth was horrified and terrified by what she saw would be simplifying matters. She knew exactly the same fate awaited her if she didn’t burn the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook and disappear for good.
“Though I could see no individual who was talking, a low shuffling hum issued from the crowd. The sound put my skin on edge. There was a grim energy to it. Like a swarm of insects, stirred up and ready for some terrible event…I had never been to an execution before, though I had read reports. They spoke of a party atmosphere, of jeering and gossip and the throwing of rotten fruit. But this crowd whispered. This crowd seemed more like an army on the dawn of battle…I felt the approach of the condemned woman before I heard the cart. A shiver of tension passed through the crowd…And then she was there – a slight figure in the distance…”
“When I first met her, she had been wearing fine clothes. Now they had her dressed in a coarse shift, bone-white and shapeless…She did it for love, the newspapers had proclaimed. All she had wanted was reunion. But she had fallen hopelessly in love with a man separated by a gulf of class that could never be crossed. The aristocrats tutted their disapproval. And now they would have their revenge.
But I had seen the story first hand. If there had been a crime, then I was its chief victim. She had promised me much and I believed her good for it, fooled by a sateen blouse.”
“She had sent me a gift as she awaited trial – an old copy of the Bullet Catcher’s Handbook. She had hinted at a mystery within its pages. But if it held anything of value, I had not found it. I resolved to burn the book when I returned home and forget that any of this had happened.”
Since we last left her, Elizabeth’s position as a run-away slave has become even more tenuous. The Kingdom and the Angle-Scottish Republic have been negotiating an extradition treaty and it looks like it’s going to become a reality. The lack of such a treaty is the only thing that has kept her safe, even though a number of attempts have still been made to get her back across the border and into the Duke’s hands. If that treaty passes, her life is over.
Elizabeth’s best friend, Julia, is the daughter of a fellow house boat owner. Julia has become involved in a charitable organization that helps orphans and homeless women. She’s devoted to its leader, a woman who has done amazingly good works for the community and whose organization, oddly enough, has been given the okay by the Patent Office. How bizarre. Julia can be a bit naïve and unworldly – a real idealist. There’s something about the things Julia tells Elizabeth about the group and its leader that sets off alarm bells, so she decides to go undercover in the organization to learn more about it. She hopes it’s on the up and up for Julia’s sake but something just doesn’t add up. This group sounds too good to be true.
As it turns out, Elizabeth was right to be concerned. Unfortunately, the group’s leader always seems to be one step ahead of her in a vicious cat-and-mouse game that puts not just Elizabeth but Julia in grave danger. As betrayals heap on top of betrayals in a domino effect that could doom them both, it will take all of Elizabeth’s skills to get them out of trouble. But can she even do that? Has she finally met a villain who’s not just her match but will beat her?
Note: I know I’m being vague; however, this book is very complex and I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ve erred on the side of too little info vs. too much. Besides there are so many plot twists that I’d give you whiplash if I didn’t cut it short…and one in particular that had me doffing my hat to the author and squeeing with glee.
Elizabeth is almost like a combination of a female Sherlock Holmes and McGiver. She whip smart, extremely intuitive, independent, strong, canny and clever, and I would definitely want her on my side anytime I needed help. That said, she’s also in over her head in this novel and it makes for one hell of a nail-biting read. Julia has been far more protected and cosseted, although she’s still a wonderful friend and addition to the series. The other person I should mention is Tinker, an orphan, who plays a pivotal role even though I did not include him in the decidedly brief synopsis above. I want his role to be a surprise, and hope I haven’t spoiled it by mentioning him.
Unseemly Science’s book cover is very appropriate for the feel of this novel. It’s a darker and more sinister tale than The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. We’re taken even deeper into the complexities of this world and are shown more of its underbelly. I have to admit that I got the shivers soon after I began reading and they didn’t go away until after I finished. I thought I was hooked after reading Book #1 – now I am really hooked. If you’re a steampunk fan, I need to let you know that its use is different from some of the in-your-face elements found in other steampunk novels, and I liked that. Bottom line: If you like alternate history, Holmes-style mysteries with nasty villains, sci-fi/fantasy, or just a nail-biting read, I recommend both books in this series. Okay, Rod Duncan, I hope you’re busy writing Book #3 because I’m tapping my foot in anticipation of what Elizabeth is going to get into next!
Can’t wait to read it?
Unseemly Science was published in the U.S. on May 5, 2015 and in the UK on May 7, 2015, so it’s available in all formats for your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you download it as an ebook, you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on Unseemly Science, Rod Duncan or his other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of Book #1 in The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire series, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.
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