Summary: Certainly no strangers to peculiar occurrences, agents Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are nonetheless stunned to observe a fellow passenger aboard Britain’s latest hypersteam train suddenly vanish in a dazzling bolt of lightning. They soon discover this is not the only such disappearance – every case inexplicably unexamined by the Crown.
Thoughts: After enjoying the high-action steampunk adventures of Books and Braun in Phoenix Rising, I figured it was about time to return and continue following along with the escapades of this dynamic duo. This time, however, they’re unofficially investigating the disappearances of women involved in the suffragist movement, women campaigning for voting rights and equality. (It scares me a little to discover, upon doing research on the movement, that women in Canada have had this right for less than a century. Which means that there are people alive today who were born before women had the right to vote in this country. And that saddens me.)
Ahem, that little interlude aside…
Eliza Braun has a personal connection to the suffragist movement and the disappearances occurring within its membership, but even if she didn’t, she’s the sort to follow that lead anyway. She’s not the type to see a mystery and just say, “Well, somebody else will take care of it.” I love that about her. She sees problems and starts working on the solutions. She’s a fantastic character to read about, strong-willed and feisty, always on the go, sure of herself even when others seem bent on forcing her into a mold for which she isn’t suited.
Wellington Books, on the other hand, is a character I love to follow because he’s studious and composed and yet there’s so much more to him than meets the eye. He’s the kind of person I’d have wanted to be when I grew up, had I read these books years and years ago. And put together with Eliza, they make such a great team with a great mix of personalities that you can’t help but want to read more about them. I adore the way they play off each other.
Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on here. While Books and Braun are investigating the disappearances of suffragists (off the record, of course, because they’ve been specifically told not to investigate at all), we also get insight into Eliza’s past and her romantic life, a conspiracy within the Ministry itself, a handful of intertwining subplots to keep things going even when the main plot has come to a bit of a standstill. None of the subplots feel forced or tacked on; they flow quite naturally, since really, when do any of us only have to deal with one thing at a time in life? Combine this with plenty of action and tension and you’ve got yourself a winning formula that keeps the entertainment coming.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of social commentary woven into the story, particularly about the place of women in society and the rights thereof. The Janus Affair is one of those books that can really get you thinking about the history of women struggling for equal rights to men, and the setbacks to the movement. Ballantine and Morris do not go into extreme detail about some of the punishments given to women imprisoned for their campaigns, but they do make mention of historically accurate issues such as being force-fed through tubes after going on hunger strikes. But even the milder refusals to concede that women are equal to men can rankle, especially when it comes from characters you expect better on. Even Books made a comment that seems relatively benign but still relegates women to the realm of the “gentle, lesser sex.” For those who haven’t done much research into the history of women’s right, who have only seen the fights occurring today, some of the content in this book might be a bit of an eye-opener, and a good jumping-off point for further personal research (if you’re anything like me, that is).
I don’t know why I waited so long between reading the first and the second books of this series. Typically I’m not much of a steampunk person, but honestly, the writing and the worldbuilding in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books more than makes up for any ambivalence I may normally feel. Twice now I’ve been proven wrong, and that’s convinced me that I need to read the third book soon, in preparation for the release of book four. Even if you’re normally hesitant about steampunk novels, this is a very fun series you definitely ought to try.