Jani and the Greater Game by Eric Brown

Jani and the Greater Game is a well-researched, alternate universe historical set in British Raj India and with distinct steampunk accents. The dialogue and descriptions are some of the best for historical accuracy that I’ve read in a long time and for once, it really stays true to steampunk genre. But somewhat flat characters and, if I am to be honest, lazy storytelling ultimate prevent this from being as engaging a read as it could have been.

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Story: Janisha Chatterjee is about to enter the university in England to be a surgeon when she learns her father in India is dying. She races across the world in an airship to be with him, only to become embroiled in an Earth-spanning conspiracy. For on the airship she is traveling is the explosive secret the British, Russian, Indian, and even Chinese governments have been hiding; the true source of annapurnite – the power source of airships, engines, and much more.  She will be enlisted to help protect the secret; without knowing that she will become responsible for the fate of the entire Earth in the process.

What I really liked about Jani and the Greater Game is the strength of the historical accuracy. The dialogue was spot on for each of the cultures – from the Russians to the colonials to the Indian servants. As well, historical references and British Raj Indian culture were casually littered throughout but never obtrusive. Always just enough to set the scene without overwhelming the story in minutiae. I was incredibly impressed with that accuracy, some of the best in any historical (and especially any steampunk) that I’ve read lately.

As well, steampunk fans will be happy to know here is a book that really adheres to the Steampunk philosophies (even if most of the mechanics are powered by the mysterious annapurnite rather than steam). We have an alternate universe where mechanics evolved faster and, as a result, changed the course of Victorian, and then Edwardian, culture.  Jani Chatterjee can attend a prestigious British university in 1910 but still doesn’t have the right to vote as a female. As well, Indians are chafing against the ‘just’ rule of the British, with ideologies and religions spearheading the charge. It feels like a real universe – so similar to ours but just skewed a little.  But more importantly, it feels like 1911 and not like 2014 ramrodded into 1911 trappings.

Where perhaps this was a let down was with a lot of the characters.  Jani, her servant, the villians – they often felt a lot like caricatures.  I felt they lacked the exuberance of say a Bollywood film (e.g., while Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indian Steampunk novel Third Daughter doesn’t have the clout of Jani and the Greater Game, it certainly was much more fun to read). This book is deadly serious yet the characters felt very superficial, silly, and honestly made such boneheaded decisions that you wonder why any rational creature would trust such souls with the fate of the world.  My 11 year old, or even my cat, would have made better decisions.

Despite the somewhat fun sounding name, I didn’t find Jani and the Greater Good to be fun at all. There is a lot of murder, torture, and cruelty that, while perhaps accurate in some regards for 1911 India, still became a bit much after awhile. It’s one thing to see a character continue to make poor choices; it’s another to have to wait for each of those characters to pay horrifically for them. Yet none seemed to ever suffer afterwards for the deprivations; cut, bruised, tormented, mentally and physically, the next day is business as usual.  It was hard to take anyone seriously after that.

Despite the name, this book has several POVs beyond just Jani’s. We have moustache twirling bad guys (Russian, Hindi, British) so no one culture is spared but it is a bit much. I believe brown was going for flawed but realistic characters – but again, I’m not sure those are the type I want to read about (or believe could save the world).

Finally, there are a lot of coincidences and lazy plot writing. E.g., having Jani ask a main character several times through the book to explain what’s going on – and have him refuse ‘for her own safety’ and then suddenly decide near the end that, hey, she won’t be in any danger after all if he tells her. It rang hollow and far too deus ex machina.  As well, there are no surprises here – plot points are quite obviously televised through the different plot points and character are only killed if shown to be very evil. As if that wasn’t enough, the author chose an annoying affectation in putting a small synopsis at the beginning of each chapter – so you know what is going to happen before you read.  I stopped reading those about 4 chapters in after they gave away a key surprise in that chapter.

I’m rating this as 3.5 stars and honestly I’m not sure if I want to continue with the series. For historical accuracy this is a 5 star book. But lack of a well written plot and more interesting characters made the book a bit difficult to want to finish.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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