Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Case of the Corpulent Copper and the Steampunk Ballet


After reading a goodly smattering of Steampunk, it seems to me there are two basic approaches to the genre: one, as a full-on fantasy (set in the Victorian era), with little technical and scientific elements providing an interesting spark to the proceedings; and the other, as straight-up sci-fi, with fantastical bits and bobs adding a delightful touch of whimsy.

Both styles are enjoyable, and the fact that each caters to a different mood--one, sort of dreamy and otherworldly, and the other, more grounded in reality (albeit an alternate one)--is cool. But, even better is when something unexpected is thrown into the standard mix, beyond just the de rigueur steam-powered this and mechanized that. Things tend to get really interesting when that happens... as in the case of Nathan L. Yocum’s Steampunk/detective mystery/action yarn, Automatic Woman

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Jacob “Jolly” Fellows is hardly your typical hero. A great, hulking bear of a man--one nearly as big around as he is tall--with the face of an oft-punched boxer, Jolly looks like what he is: a professional bruiser. In this instance the job is completely on the up-and-up, though, since London’s well-known Bow Street Firm employs him as one of their specialized “thief catchers”. A barricaded door needs busted open, or a suspect roughed up a bit to be persuaded to talk? Jolly’s the man for the job.

We catch up with Jolly as he’s beginning his latest assignment, helping one Dr. Saxon (as mad a scientist as there ever was) track down a valuable item which has been stolen from him. The purloined piece? A life-size, mechanized robot... but not just any robot, as Jolly is quick to realize (for such a thing would not normally be worth so much trouble in this steam-powered version of London, circa 1888). It seems there is true genius behind Dr. Saxon’s madness, and he has created not one, but a whole troupe of robots--ballerina robots, whose specialty is performing (always, curiously, for their audience of only one, the doctor) the entire Swan Lake ballet... and it is the prima ballerina--the Swan Princess, herself--which has been unceremoniously snatched from the doctor’s domicile.

Thinking the case to almost certainly be wrapped up within a matter of days--for what could a thief possibly do with such a one-of-a-kind item?--Jolly sets out on a quest for clues to the missing hunk of metal’s whereabouts. (It helps, of course, that in his line of work he’s made contacts everywhere; he knows the tavern owners, madams, fences, other assorted petty criminals, and any number of ordinary working folk... and they know him, and his brawn.)

Just when he thinks he’s nearly worked out the forces behind the dastardly deed, though, he has the misfortune to walk in on a murder in progress... and that’s when things suddenly take a detour into the strange. Jolly is knocked out during a fight at the crime scene, and when he comes to, finds that he is being held for the murder. Making matters worse, no one at the Bow Street Firm seems to believe him.

Help eventually comes along... but at a price. A wealthy dealer of arts and eccentricities (and a bit of a scientist himself) will pay Jolly’s bail, provided Jolly promises to locate the missing robotic ballerina (the titular “automatic woman”) and deliver her to his gallery. Seeing no alternatives--particularly not with everyone else set squarely against him--Jolly grudgingly agrees to the terms.

From that point, it’s a frantic chase around London and into the countryside, as Jolly tries to find the robot, figure out who was behind the murder (and why), and somehow clear his name at work (since the thought of being hung from the neck until dead holds little appeal)... all while being pursued by vicious, mysterious, gun-and-knife-wielding thugs wearing jungle-animal masks over their faces, trying to elude an angry pimp (and protect the woman who is the source of said pimp’s ire), and deal with the demands of one additional (and unexpected) entry into the fray. (No, I shan’t tell you who this mysterious character is--just that it’s a real-life historic figure, one who adds a very interesting perspective.)

Can the burly thief-catcher, always prized for his brawn rather than his brain, outrun a host of determined men younger, faster, and better-armed than he... without the loss of more innocent lives... in order to catch a clever killer? That is, indeed, the question.

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As mentioned earlier, Automatic Woman was a delightful surprise for me, with its seamless blending of genres. It’s one part gritty Steampunk (no ethereal stuff here), one part amped-up, Sherlock-Holmesian detective mystery caper, and one part raucous action romp through the squalid streets of Victorian London... with a little science and philosophy thrown in for kicks.

Another key reason it works so well? That’s down to Jolly, our fabulous, first-person storyteller... a man unapologetic about his appearance, without an ounce of remorse for his own brutality, and (mostly) unsentimental about the life he’s led and the choices he’s made. Right from the start, I had no trouble connecting with him--not because he’s familiar, but because he expresses himself with such candor and ease.

Automatic Woman is a highly-accessible read, whether you’re a historical-mystery aficionado, crazy for some Steampunk action, a police-detective-thriller buff, or all the above. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  4.5 Mousies with Little Metal Bells

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