Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon
by David Barnett
Published in 2014, this book is the sequel to the book Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, which was reviewed here. I am going to warn everyone up front: there are spoilers for the first book in here. Taking place in a steampunk clockwork world where the British Empire still reigns supreme over the American colonies and most of the world in the year of our lord 1890, the first book gave us Gideon's rise to heroic status and his first mission to avenge the murder of his father and prevent the destruction of London by an Ancient Egyptian made superweapon: the aforementioned Brass Dragon. The Mechanical Girl in the title refers to Maria, a woman made of clockwork, kid leather, a murdered women's brain and tied together using a strange artifact found on a shipwreck in the Atlantic ocean. At the close of the last book, Gideon saved London and avenged his father but managed to have the dragon and Maria hijacked out from under him. To be honest it's not bad for a first attempt at heroism all things considered.
This book, the second in the series picks up with Gideon having completed several weeks of firearm and hand to hand combat training and being sent out into the world. His first mission is to recuse a pair of British Scientific and Action icons, the Professor of Adventure Stanford Rubicon and the steam powered cyborg Charles Darwin. Both of these gentlemen have been shipwrecked in Japanese waters (I'll come back here) on the mysterious island known only as Sector 31, the Lost World, which is full of you guessed it.. Dinosaurs. It's a sadly brief section but I enjoyed it. After finishing this mission Gideon finally gets the mission he wants, he gets sent off to North America to find the Brass Dragon and Maria and bring them back to English hands.
It's a strange and fractured North America that Gideon is being sent to, at least to our eyes. The West Coast is in Japanese hands, although they are mainly focused in California. This comes from when Emperor Komei of Japan was infected with smallpox, a Japanese scientist figured out a way to keep him alive using well... Steampunk Cybornetics to replace his blood daily. Aghast at his father turning into a high tech (well by their standards high tech) vampire and realizing there's not a lot for the heir of an immortal machine Emperor to do, Mutsuhito, heir to the Japanese throne fled with his followers to California to establish a more progressive and less blood drinky version of Japan. Louisiana is still ruled by the French government, given that the Louisiana purchase never happened. To be honest I don't view that as realistic, but the book doesn't go into that so I'll let it go. Meanwhile over in the east, the British government still rules the colonies, due to a mysterious British hero named Gideon stopping Paul Revere's ride (if this isn't a clear and obvious time travel set up then I don't what is, but we'll have to see). The exception to this is the Deep South, which split when slavery was abolished. This led to the British government building a vast wall across the border. British control doesn't extend very deep into the continent however, with a part of the interior under the control of the Free States of America, where various rebels fled when the revolution failed and Texas being split into warlord states. The wealthiest and most powerful of these being Steamtown ruled by the madman Thaddeus Pinch.
Steamtown, built where our own San Antonio is, became wealthy on two things. Coal mines, crewed by slaves and a massive amount of sex slavery where kidnapped women from around the world are forced to work as whores in the brothels of the town. It's a vile, loathsome place that exists because everyone else is too far away, too weak, or too busy to stomp it out and it's ruled by a man who’s been replacing every part of himself that he can with cutting edge steampunk machine parts. I noted that Charles Darwin had been made a cyborg earlier and it's interesting to contrast the two characters despite Darwin's very brief appearance. Charles Darwin remains a very human character despite being made up of a high amount of metal and needing to burn coal to be able to move. Thaddeus Pinch however, is pure monster. Spurning the flesh he was born with, he believes that each replacement brings him closer to godhood, which gives him the right to treat mere mortals as pawns and tools to do with as he pleases. Somehow, I don't think this is what the average transhumanist had in mind, or at least I hope not. Thaddeus Pinch has the dragon but sadly not the means to control it as Maria was removed from the wreckage. So he holds Louis Cockayne prisoner, hoping that Louis will cough up what he needs to know to operate the dragon, unite Texas, and conquer the world so he can rule it as a steampowered god forever. Into this, armed with a pistol, his wits and hopefully more luck then he needs, rides Gideon Smith.
Gideon Smith has grown since the first book, this is no longer a young man who needs his hand held and everything explained. That said, Gideon still has a lot to learn and a fair amount of growing to do. Interestingly enough Louis Cockayne turns out to be his main mentor despite the fairly adversarial relationship between them. This relationship stems from the fact that it was Cockayne who stole the brass dragon at the end of the last book, with Maria plugged into it. Speaking of Maria, another issue is Gideon confronting and grappling with his feelings for the mechanical girl. A lot of us would have some problems admitting that we're actually in love with what is essentially a robot using a dead person's brain as it's CPU, let alone a young lad raised in the conservative British country side of the late 1800s. Again it's Louis Cockayne who guides him through this. I actually like this somewhat adversarial relationship, you can clearly see that Cockayne likes and cares about Gideon but really can't help himself when faced with temptation. It gives their relationship a jerky big brother and scrappy little brother feel that isn't a bromance but something a bit more interesting in some ways. That said Gideon is going to have to take everything that Cockayne teaches him while proving Cockayne's worldview wrong. That'll be interesting to see.
There’s an interesting theme running through this as well which links our villain Pinch and Gideon. Gideon is learning to accept the fact that he’s different and that it’s that difference that lets him achieve the heights he can. Pinch has already achieved heights, granted as a slaving monster trapped within a shell of man being turned into a monstrous machine but none the less. This is illustrated when Gideon and Pinch first come face to face with each other. Pinch asks if Gideon is disturbed by his appearance as a half machine, half bleeding wreck of humanity and Gideon being a brave lad cops to it. When called unnatural Pinch doesn’t deny it but instead embraces it, rightly pointing out there’s nothing natural about men flying through the sky or well… Anything about industrial society, so why deny it? It’s humanity defiance of nature that holds the seeds of its greatness as according to nature we should all be naked shivering on the African plains hoping the Lions find someone else to eat tonight. I hate Pinch’s mechanical guts but I gotta admit he’s got a point here. So we’re led to the statement that Gideon’s life might just be unnatural but… So what? It’s not like your life is all that natural either is it?
We also have a cast of supporting character returning in this sequel, most specifically Rowena and Bent. Rowena is a lady airship pilot and in the last book she didn't have much to do other then fly the ship and flirt with Gideon. This book is good enough to give Rowena something to do besides play air taxi and be turned down by the main character. That said even that arc doesn't get a lot of space but it's more than she had in the prior book. Bent is actually moved somewhat into the background for this story mostly to clear space for new characters; such as the daughter of a Spanish appointed governor of a Mexican town named Inez (with no American Revolution, it seems that the Mexican Revolution also did not get off the ground) and her Indian boyfriend named Chantico. Inez is an interesting girl, who has a slight obession with a disappeared Mexican hero, who wore all black and was really good with a sword. He was of course named Zor... La Chupacabras, yes, that's totally it. Inez has taken fencing lessons in secret because that's practically required for any young aspiring aristocratic lady character. Chantico, I didn't care for. Mainly because his role is to do stupid shit in the plot and then have everyone who says they love him tell him what an idiot he is. I would say if you have a character whose main role is to do stupid crap to advance the plot and be called an idiot you need to rethink that character. It's a shame not just because he's the only major Indian character in the story but because I'm thinking that he could have contributed a lot more to the story if he had been allowed to be even slightly useful.
Additionally we have a mysterious character knocking about the story who calls himself Nameless. The Nameless is a man who is very good with a gun and seems to have an ability to basically will himself across the North American continent. The Nameless mainly works with the secondary characters pursuing a bit of a side plot where he tries to create a new melting pot in America. A place where various peoples of different backgrounds can live together and pursue common goals in peace. It's a nice nod to some of the ideals that fueled our country, of many people from diverse places coming together to build something greater. I won't go into details to avoid spoilers but I am left wondering why the Free States of America (which got named dropped but remain unseen) couldn't serve this function? The Nameless is fairly clearly a supernatural character and fits in well. I find the idea of a human embodiment of the melting pot ideal something interesting in and of itself in this day and age and I’m going to note it’s a part of America worth defending and embodying.
Mr. Barnett continues to provide us with two fisted, steampunk style action, very much in the style of the old pulp stories. At the same time he's able to inject a good amount of grey into this world and additional complexity by not shedding away from the dark parts of the time period and of an openly imperialist culture. I enjoyed seeing these characters again and I did enjoy the tour of at least some of North America. Unfortunately we don't get to really spend a lot of time anywhere but Steamtown which is the one place I didn't want to see a lot of. That said there was at least a good pay off for it. I did think there were a couple more side plots in this novel that weren't needed but Mr. Barnett does manage to tie them all together in a workmanlike manner if not in an especially eloquent way. All in all I'm giving Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon a B-. It was good and fun but there was a lot of flailing around for not enough pay off. Still there are a lot worse books out there.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.