Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
By David Barnett
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (or GS Mechanical Girl as I'm going to refer to it for the rest of the review) is the 4th novel by David Barnett, which was released in 2013. David Barnett was born in England in 1970. He was a journalist for 26 years working across North England and later expanded his writing to fiction; his first novel “Hinterland” was released in 2005. He has since written eight novels (counting Calling Major Tom, his most recent one), six short stories that I am aware of and two comics using the open source character Jenny Everywhere (which is something we'll have to discuss another day). GS Mechanical Girl was his 4th novel and is dedicated to his wife Claire with whom he has two children, a boy and a girl.
GS Mechanical Girl is a modern pulp novel set in a steampunk universe, so if you don't like pulp or steampunk, this isn't the book for you. Let's just get that right out of the way. It's actually a fairly good example of modern pulp, in that it tries to model itself after that older style while modernizing it and dumping some of the more... cringe-worthy elements. Let me talk a bit about pulp fiction in general before I dive into the book. Pulp fictions were stories that ranged from horror to westerns to science fiction (usually heavy on the fiction, light on the science however) that were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper and released in magazines. There are a large number of authors who either got their start or worked completely in this setting (men like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, and Robert Howard for example). I am a fan of good number of these writers and frankly we owe a debt to them. A large number of the archetypes and characters that stubbornly remain in our culture after nearly a hundred years are from this time period and these works. Characters like the Shadow, Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, and Zorro to give some examples. For that matter, the pulps were one of the ancestors to modern comic books (among other things) so without those magazines or these characters, we wouldn't have Ironman, Batman, or Captain America--and you can forget about Superman or Spiderman. Something to consider the next time you line up to see the latest Marvel blockbuster in all it's glorious cheese. It's hard to make any real sweeping statements about pulp fiction but it was often known for being lurid and sensationalist. Modern pulp has stepped back from that a bit (after all we have fan fiction for that now) and often prefers to try playing with the expectations of the old genre and updating itself for modern sensibilities. To be blunt about it, modern pulp wants to tell stories in classic settings but ditch the racism and sexism of those eras, or at the very least subvert them. So let's take a look at Gideon Smith shall we?
It is the year 1890 and the sun does not set on the reign of her Majesty Queen Victoria or on the British Empire. Since the failed American Revolution of 1775, the Empire has only expanded. Now ruling nearly 3/4ths of the world directly or indirectly. London has become in a real sense the capital of the world and bids to become the capital of the entire human race. It is an industrial world, a world powered by gears, steam and clockwork. A world of factory ships, clockwork airships and the men and women who work them. Gideon Smith is 24 years old and the son of the owner and captain of the Cold Drake: a gear powered fishing trawler in the town of Sandsend. By day he works with his father laboring to bring in an ever decreasing catch of fish, by night he reads the absolutely true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger “Hero of the Empire” as related by Dr. John Ross released in a magazine. While Gideon would love to see the world and experience his own adventurers, well...fish won't catch themselves. That is until his loving father (I'm coming back to this) takes the boat out without him one day and disappears. After a brief but hard bout of mourning Gideon finds a number of clues that convince him that whatever it was, it wasn't the ocean that took away his father. Which means if he's going to find out what happened and get justice for his dad, he'll have to get Captain Lucian Trigger's, Hero of the Empire, help. But what if Captain Trigger's help isn't everything it was cracked up to be?
Gideon is going to travel across England to shores beyond to meet a colorful cast of characters, some of which he thinks he knows. Characters such as Ms. Rowena Fanshawe “ Belle of the Airways”, a woman air-ship pilot running her own business the opinions of men be damned (not that she doesn't like the right sort of man mind you). She's handy, bold, brave and honestly I kinda like her. There's also Louis Cockayne, who I definitely like if only for his ability to wind Gideon up. Cockayne is a Yankee sky pirate (This review is completely justified just for letting me write that line) who plays the role of antagonistic mentor to Gideon Smith, teaching a number of life lessons while also just flat out fucking with his head. It becomes very clear that Cockayne is fairly fond of Gideon but isn't gonna cut him any slack because of that. As an older brother who has been informed that he is indeed an asshole... I kinda approve. Not of everything Cockayne does, but of him being a glorious asshole. There's also Mr. Bent, a fat, loud, low class, lewd news reporter pulled in because he was determined to uncover the truth of the Jack the Ripper murders. Mr. Barnett avoids over using Mr. Bent, which is good because with characters like this a little goes a long way. As it stands Mr. Bent is amusing without becoming annoying. We also have Bram Stoker and a certain friend of his appearing (not the one you think though). Bram and his friend are on their own mission but it overlaps with Gideon's pretty well. Lastly, I'm going to address the Mechanical Girl in the title. Maria is girl built entirely of clockwork who has to be wound up every so often. A girl who despite all of that is a person who while personally blameless still springs from a dark origin. Gideon runs into her in the mansion of her creator on the way towards London suffering from the abuse of the household caretaker. It's when Maria asks to be rescued from the man that I really warmed up to Gideon. Gideon doesn't hem and haw about whether or not Maria has the right to control access to her own body, he decides anyone who can declare they don't like this and ask for help deserves to be treated like a real person. Gideon has his faults mind you, such as being horribly slow to realize that maybe those magazines he love might not be entirely truthful about the world outside his home..
That said, the magazines were right about one thing. The world is full of monsters, vampires, mummies and worst of all wicked men who do not care about their fellow humans. The world also has plenty of people willing to fight and bleed to protect their fellow humans from those monsters. It is also a world full of marvels both wicked and amazing. We see most of this through Gideon's eyes, although Mr. Barnett also jumps to show us Bram's and Maria's point of view. Frankly I am somewhat grateful for this because there are times I want to beat Gideon with a clue bat until something breaks. Gideon Smith is a good guy, he's mostly honest, he's brave, selfless, and willing to help but God Above He Is Dense. You know I would like to see an honest, brave guy, who is actually insightful and clever as our hero. As it stands there seems to be a divide in a lot of fiction. Our hero can be noble, brave and true; or shifty, tricksy, and clever. A note to future writers, you can mix these traits up just a touch. Seriously try it! You might like it!
This story also takes a while to get started. This is also Gideon's fault as he spends several chapters trying to convince himself to do what he decided he should do about 37 pages into the novel! A bit of inner conflict is a good thing in a novel but not when I need the protagonist to get off his pale lily white butt so we can get this party started. For God Sake Bram Stoker was practically the main character as far as I was concerned for a chunk of this a novel with Gideon’s bloody name in the title! I agree that you don't want to go to fast but you should also realize when a section has served it's purpose and move on. Or to put it bluntly, stop malingering and get on with the story! That said when the story actually gets started it's a good one. The character interactions are fairly believable. They don't act exactly like 19th century English subjects but that's okay because they're from a very different world then our 1890 AD. The important thing is they don't act like 21st century Americans in funny clothes (I will admit they are a bit closer to 21st century acting then stereotyped 19th century but these are adventurers on the edge of society so it works). I should also speak to the treatment of British Society here. Basically through the plot and the treatment of various characters the sexism and classism of the time is put on full display. I have to compliment Mr. Barnett for being willing to put it on display. I also compliment him on not going too far with it and decrying the society as unsaveable and suggesting everyone who is part of it is a monster in human form. The British Empire comes off as a morally ambiguous enterprise in this book but one that manages to create a decent life for hundreds of millions of people and protects the world from even worse fates. Which is about the best you can expect from empires perhaps. The action is well done but is somewhat removed in it's descriptions, it's not as visceral as some other writers I've reviewed. Still it's done with a good solid effort and I appreciated it. I would encourage Mr. Barnett and other writers to maybe take a martial arts class or get into a boxing ring though. While I don't want anyone seriously injured, I think being punched in the face and punching someone else a couple of times really helps with your ability to describe it.
Another note: despite very clearly leading into it's sequel and not neatly resolving everything in the plot, the book does tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an ending. I know that doesn't seem like a big thing but those of you who have read a number of my past reviews will recall me pounding the drum against ending on a cliffhanger. We're paying a full story price, we should get a full story! This is after-all a capitalist society, which means among other things we should insist on getting our money's worth. While it has a slow start and a main character who can be a touch exasperating, what we get is a fairly solid and fun tale taking us into the British Empire that never was but also refuses to shy away from the dark underbelly and warts of the time without getting obsessed with that dark side. Because of this I am giving Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett a B. A great recovery from a slow start, interesting characters in a world I want to know more about and a genre I love really help.