Unseemly Science continues the engaging story of Elizabeth Barnabus as she struggles to survive a steampunk Britain. This time, aided and abetted by friend/tutor Julia and orphan Tinker, her ‘brother’s’ investigations will take a macabre turn. At the same time, political machinations will greatly put Elizabeth’s safety in jeopardy. The writing is as crisp, worldbuilding deep, and characters as nuanced as the first book. This is a worthy second volume in what is turning out to be a fantastic series.
Story: Elizabeth has her boat but has paid a great price for it. But the safety is short lived as the her status as an exiled expat becomes jeopardized. Friend/student Julia, meanwhile, has found a cause to assist – a woman who helps orphans and homeless. When Elizabeth immediately senses something very wrong with the charitable organization, she and Julia will be thrown down a rabbit hole for the only organization to be exempt from the Patent Board – the medical profession. It will take all of Elizabeth’s mettle and cleverness to not only get to the underbelly of an insidious organization – but to also keep from being imprisoned and extradited back to the Royalists.
The heart of the story will always be Elizabeth’s wit and resourcefulness. For once, we have a heroine with whom we can see why she is so desired by the Duke to add to his possessions. But with Unseemly Science, the exquisitely crafted worldbuilding and informed details come to the fore. From ice miners to physicians, Author Duncan does the same with the science that he does with the world: extrapolates and then pushes it to a very believable next degree. It all makes terrifying sense in a world gone very awry.
Although Elizabeth still has a ‘case’ here, the plot mostly revolves around her surviving/dodging/avoiding being returned to London and the Royalists. The investigation into the ice miners and the charity organization really take a back seat as the story intricately weaves the plot points together. Quite a few of the characters from the first book are in the second (Tinker, Julia, Bessie the boat (who has a secret of her own), the handsome Patent Board officer) so transitioning into this second book is seamless. Aspects of the first book also reappear in the second – the art of disguise, surprises, plot twists, and the edge of desperation that constantly permeates every action by Elizabeth. Things are never as they first seem in the Gas Lit Empire. But changes at the end of each book also mean that the story never stagnates; author Duncan ends the books firmly but also in such a way that the situation will be escalated in very intriguing ways.
Although the setting is contemporary, this definitely has a steampunk feel that the author has thought out cleverly. Owing to the power of the Patent Office to control inventions and the rise of the Luddite movement through the group winning a Revolution that partitioned Britain, the steampunk trappings and low tech of the world make complete sense. The Patent Office is there to ensure that no country pursues weapons that can be used against another; nor any device that would be ‘unseemly’ and affect the quality of life of man. They ensure the diesel empire never emerges. I applaud Duncan for creating a steampunk that wasn’t post apocalyptic in origin nor randomly developed.
In all, I am greatly enjoying the series and look forward to the next book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.