Because I've always been hopeless at choosing what to read next, late last year I decided to let the judges and voters of twenty-eight literary awards make that selection for me. While I've since whittled down the number of shortlists to twenty, there's been something liberating and exciting about having a group of strangers (well, experts in their field) determine what I read. The judges of the Philip K. Dick award were my first taste-makers, and amongst the six nominees was Rod Duncan's The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, the opening book in the portentously titled "The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire" series.
History (or Wikipedia) tells us that the Luddite Rebellion of 1811, an angry and violent response to industrialisation and technological progress, was more or less quelled by the British Government by 1816. But The Bullet Catcher's Daughter proposes an alternate history where the Rebellion resulted in the signing of an accord that established the International Patent Office, a bureaucratic monolith that "protect[s] and ensure[s] the wellbeing of the common man" by using patents to stifle technological progress. Fall-out from the Rebellion also led to the splitting of the United Kingdom into the secularist Anglo-Scottish Republic and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales. A former resident of the Kingdom—our hero, Elizabeth Barnabus— moves to the Republic to escape the clutches of an oily and grubby Duke. Elizabeth, who has spent most of her formative years living in a circus, is practiced at disguises and wielding a gun. She uses these skills to (a) live a dual life as a watered-down version of herself and in the guise of her own gallivanting brother, and (b) earn money as a private investigator by tracking down missing items and people.
As I wrote on my blog when I reviewed the novel back in January, I loved the set-up of The Bullet Catcher's Daughter but was less impressed with the execution. In terms of the world building, I was especially excited by the idea of a bureaucracy that spent most of its time limiting the development of technology for the sake of peace and harmony. As a public servant I'm naturally attracted to all things bureaucratic (even in my fiction), but, given the establishment of the Patent Office is a major point of distinction between our history and the alternate proposed by Duncan, its function provides insight into a society that has deliberately turned its back on progress and modernity. While the kneejerk reaction is to see a totalitarian entity like the Patent Office in a negative light, it also lets us reflect on our own insecurities in regard to unconstrained progress.
I also appreciated seeing this world through the eyes of a character who, in order to survive in this restrictive environment, lives a dual life as man and a woman. However, Duncan took these intriguing elements, brimming with potential, and wrapped them in a plodding and by-the-numbers "private detective searches for a missing person" story. When the Patent Office does appear, represented by possible love interest John Farthing, it's mostly in service of the plot. And any depth to the world building is pushed to the Glossary (it's actually the most interesting part of the novel).
It's a testament, then, to the conceptual strength of Duncan's alternate history that, while I was never intending to read the sequel, Unseemly Science, I nevertheless immediately said yes when I was offered the opportunity to review it. I wanted to know whether Duncan had added more flesh to the bones of his world, and initially I was impressed with the darker tone and direction of the novel. In the opening chapters we're further exposed to the corrupt politics that not only underpins both Republic and Royal society—but also allows an organisation like the Patent Office to exist. We learn that the Republic and the Kingdom are planning to sign an extradition treaty that would see ex-pats sent back home to the Kingdom. It's a horrible situation for Elizabeth given that the Duke of Northampton is eagerly waiting to make her his plaything. The situation gets immeasurably worse when Elizabeth is forced to register that she's a "Royal" at the local police station:
"And you'll need is to put this in a window of your house. Facing the street."
[The policeman] pushed the folded paper across the countertop [...] I opened out the paper. It was a roughly printed black crown on a red background—a crude representation of the flag of the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales.
"It's so we know who's a Royalist," he said. "In case there's trouble."
Elizabeth's permanent residence is a boat—named Bessie—which is anchored to a jetty. When she sticks the flag against the porthole she detects "coolness from some of my neighbours. And weekend tourists whispered to each other as they passed. One family even shifted to the other side of the towpath." Soon after this, she is unexpectedly bundled into the back of a Black Maria and taken to an internment camp. Almost immediately Elizabeth and the other captured Royals are dehumanized:
Just as it had been no one's job to bring us lamps, we soon discovered that it was no one's job to empty the chamber pots. We had to beg the man who came in the morning with our breakfast. He relented at last. Our chain was unlocked from the ring bolts in the floor and we were allowed to walk in procession, carrying the soiled and stinking porcelain out to the latrine hut to be emptied and rinsed. Everything about the prison was haphazard except the chain itself.
Given the lighter tone of The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, I was genuinely caught off-guard by the bleakness of Elizabeth's situation, the sense of fear and hopelessness. But I also found it refreshing to see Duncan tackling, even if it was only for a few short chapters, the issue of how society demonizes its refugees and immigrants. The immigration plot device provides further insight into a society that's pathologically frightened by ideologies and philosophies that don't reflect its own. The tribal nature of the Republic and the Kingdom means that even assimilation isn't an option. You can look like them, speak like them, dress like them, but if you came from elsewhere then you can never be them. If that sounds familiar it's because we can draw a disturbing and clear link between the actions of an imaginary, backwards-looking Republic and the "civilized" and "progressive" policies of all-too-real Western Governments around the world. It shouldn't resonate, but it does.
Elizabeth doesn't spend long in the internment camp. Once she escapes, the tone of the novel goes through a significant change, moving closer to the action-adventure style of the previous book. I don't have a particular issue with this; it would have been strange if Elizabeth, with all her smarts and improvisational skills, had not found a means of escape. The problem is that the subsequent narrative ploughs a similar field to The Bullet Catcher's Daughter. Once again Elizabeth has been asked to search for a missing a person—the niece of Wallace Jones, the Minister of Patents. Given Jones's prominent position in the Republican Government, Elizabeth is promised that, if she finds his niece, the treaty will be modified to allow any Royalist, before a certain date, to stay in the Republic.
What follows is lots of repetitive running away from spies and ne'er-do-wells, and an interminably dull middle section dealing with the harvesting of ice (and how it's turned into blocks). Things do pick up toward the end when we're finally introduced to the villain of the piece, a mad scientist-surgeon named Erasmus Foxley. We discover that he's been stealing ice (from the poor folk who harvest the stuff) and kidnapping people (such as the Minister's niece) so he can perform experiments in cryonics in his lair under an ice factory. As much as that sounds like a great premise for a Bond film, this reveal happens so late in the novel, and after so much faffing around, that there's very little time to get engaged with Foxley's insane plans before the book ends with a perfunctory bang.
Throughout all this, my favourite part of Duncan's world, the International Patent Office, barely rates a mention. John Farthing drifts in and out of the novel, mostly to push the plot along and make enigmatic remarks about a package that Elizabeth may, or may not, have received at the end of the previous novel. So rather than get further insight into the workings of the Patent Office, we get annoying exchanges such as this:
[Farthing]: "There's still a loose end to tie from the Florence May case.' He looked up from the custard slice [...] ‘She... that is to say, the prison guards... they told us she sent a package from her cell. We now know it was addressed to you."
"I need to know what it contained."
"Why is the Patent Office concerned?"
"You know I can't answer that, Elizabeth."
"Is it something particular you're looking for?"
"Something of value?"
"In a manner of speaking."
More disappointing than the humdrum plot and the lack of Patent Office action is how Duncan treat's Elizabeth dual personality. What was a fundamental part of her character in The Bullet Catcher's Daughter is mostly used as a plot device in Unseemly Science. When Elizabeth is captured earlier in the novel, the guards fail to ask her for the location of her brother. Given that the internment camp is so poorly administered, it's not entirely surprising that the question was never asked. However, after she escapes, Elizabeth is hidden away for a few days by friendly neighbours at the wharf. These friends know of her brother, but don't know that he and Elizabeth are the same person. And yet at no point do they bother to ask Elizabeth where he is, whether he was captured, whether he's OK. It's as if he only exists when Elizabeth, for the sake of the plot, needs to dress up as a man. It's a terrible shame because one of the strengths of The Bullet Catcher's Daughter was how Duncan handled Elizabeth's dual identity with sensitivity and care.
Once again, then, Rod Duncan has written a novel that contains some great ingredients but fails to come together in the execution. I still like the conceptual framework of the alternate history he's developed and I thought it was brave for him to deal with the issue of how society treats refugees. I just wish that the overall plot took greater advantage of the elements that made Duncan's world compelling and unique.
Ian Mond is the co-host of The Writer and the Critic podcast with Kirstyn McDermott and blogs on his website The Hysterical Hamster. It’s on his blog where he’s begun the task of reading and reviewing the nominated novels of over 25 award shortlists. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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