The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot, Aug. 2014)-I’ve been meaning to get to The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter for a while now, but then it got nominated for a Philip K Dick Award, and I figured it was time. Now I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner. Elizabeth Barnabus is one of the most marvelous creations in SFF to come around in a long time, and her voice is singularly compelling. So, Rod Duncan plops his readers down into an alternate history where Britain is divided thusly: the northernmost part of Britain is the Anglo-Scottish Republic and the southernmost is called The Kingdom of England and Southern Wales, which resulted from the British Revolutionary War which ran from 1816-1819. The Gas-Lit Empire refers to the territories watched over by the much feared International Patent Office. The story actually takes place during the early 1970s, but it’s not the 70s that we know. There are airships, and Victorian dress (mostly on the Republic side, where Elizabeth lives-the Kingdom is much more fashion forward), and traveling shows full of wonder and mayhem. Like I said, Elizabeth lives on the Republic side, on a boat named Bessie, but it’s not really by choice. She’s on the run from a dark past and would do anything to go back to the Kingdom. Until that’s possible, she works as a private detective, or intelligence gatherer, barely keeping her head above water. Or, actually, I should say her twin brother Edwin is a private detective, because women can’t be private detectives.
But actually, there is no Edwin. Elizabeth lives a dual life as both herself and her twin brother and she’s good at it. After all, in her own words, illusion is her inheritance. Born in a traveling circus, Elizabeth is a pro at creating illusion, and posing as her twin brother is the only way she can hope to survive in what is very much a man’s world. She’s very close to losing her boat, so when the Dutchess of Bletchley approaches Elizabeth (as her brother) and hires her to find her wayward brother, Elizabeth really has no choice but accept, but all roads seem to lead to Harry Timpson’s Laboratory of Arcane Wonders, and a life that Elizabeth thought she’d left behind. When she’s approached by a man named John Farthing, from The International Patent Office, the stakes soon become much higher, and a simple quest to pay her dock fees becomes so much more.
The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is just fantastic. The alternate history is fascinating, but it’s the trappings of the traveling circus that give it a unique, and magical flavor, and Rod Duncan clearly has a wonderful time building the world of the Laboratory of Arcane Wonders and the many odd and delightful characters that populate it. Perhaps keeping with the theme of illusion, there are more than a few surprises here, and Elizabeth’s considerable ingenuity in getting herself in, and out of trouble, is delightful to behold. Keep an eye out for Julia Swain, a younger girl that Elizabeth tutors, and who also has a bit of a crush on “Edwin”. She’s more than she seems, and it’s, well…it’s awesome. Duncan combines themes of identity and independence with an ingenious fantasy that will intrigue any fan of steampunk and alternate history. There’s also a handy glossary in the back, so it’s very easy to keep up with the historical background of Rod Duncan’s world. Duncan is an accomplished crime writer, and this detective story with fantastical elements shows his chops to great effect, and the steampunk elements don’t overtake the story; instead, they add just enough to make it more interesting. The ending leaves so many wonderful possibilities for more adventures with Elizabeth, and you’ll want to keep an eye out for Unseemly Science in May!