I put off reading The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter; despite my love for everything steampunk, the title alone felt like a cliche with all the recently released books titled “The [fill in the blank]’s Daughter” out there. But upon reading, I was greatly surprised and impressed; this is an very well written alternate universe using a successful Luddite revolution as the basis for the change in history. It’s an interesting premise and author Duncan weaves an engrossing story within.
Story: Elizabeth Barnabus grew up in the Circus – her father eked out a small living for his family with illusions and shows. But a Duke takes an interest in 14 year old Elizabeth and forces the family into bankruptcy in order to own her for the debts; she flees Imperial London and heads into the Republic to start a new life. Using the skills she learned from her father, she subsists in a male dominated society by masquerading at twins – a ‘brother’ Edwin (an informer) and herself. When a case brings her up against the all-powerful Patent Office (the only authority bridging a divided Britain), she runs the risk of losing all that she has worked so hard to achieve. For one can only tread water so long before the only choice is to move or sink.
The writing is strong but really the star of the book is the world building. Although set in contemporary time, the Luddite revolution pretty much restricted inventions to steam powered only. As a result, there are airsheaps and trains but no cars or electrical tech. It’s a Victorian Britain that never ended though the changes were great. I really liked the whole idea of the Quaker/Luddite Republic and their more grounded and realistic society in contrast to the more bombastic Imperials. Most of the story takes place up in Leicester, the Republic side, and the author has mined the history of the area well for the story.
The characters are distinct, thoughtful, logical, and engaging. I was worried that the circus aspect of the story would be over the top and silly but I was quite wrong. The circus elements are woven into the story but don’t overwhelm or overtake it; what we have is more a mystery/detective story. Elizabeth has what should be a simple ‘find the missing brother’ case but as with the best writers, nothing is truly as it seems.
I was fortunate to read this book and the sequel, Unseemly Science, right after each other. I can say that the second book is just as good and continues the story/characters smoothly. As such, this book is highly recommended for its unique story, strong characterizations, imaginative worldbuilding, and engaging read.