The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris is the second of a group of loosely connected stories in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, recounting the action-packed adventures of Ministry agents Books and Braun. These books (though there are only two, but we’ll extrapolate) appear to be chronological, but can stand alone, rather than as a series with one arcing plot.
Yup… you read their names right
I actually held off buying the first Ministry book, Phoenix Rising, entirely because of the fact that the protagonists were a no-holds-barred gun-toting woman named Braun, and her librarian partner, Books, who won’t even use a gun and who mostly just hides in the back. This just seemed like such a horrible contrivance that I felt almost certain that I’d dislike the series purely in an “oh gee, look at the tropes” way.
Boy, was I wrong.
Ballentine and Morris have set up a rollicking adventure series of the finest order, the sort you’d have read as a serial in the 1890s or heard as a radio drama in the 1920s. Gadgets, explosions, romance, zeppelins, captures, escapes, sword fighting… oh wait, now I’m talking about The Princess Bride. And honestly? That’s a pretty apt comparison in terms of style and general awesomeness.
Steampunk and feminism and social critique, oh my
Ballentine and Morris (hereafter B&M for brevity) have really captured the best essence of steampunk as a genre. Where too many authors fall into the trap of just mechanizing everything and gluing cogs onto every flat surface, B&M have a realistic view of the advance of steam power and the technology that would follow. Most people still live much as you would without the steampunk elements, and it’s all the reasonable things like mass transit, and public services that have the heaviest elements of the mechanical.
The character of Eliza Braun also does a lot of great things that fall short in many other “strong female protagonist” characters. She does what she wants; and she isn’t immune to the consequences, she just doesn’t care. She gets away with a lot because she is from the colonies, but manages to really challenge a lot of characters, especially her partner Wellington Books, to really reconsider a lot of the traditional Victorian gender roles and modes of thought.
These two things together create a strange alchemy of changing up history just enough to let you suspend disbelief with some of the more fantastic elements while still staying grounded enough that you can draw some really interesting social commentary from it as well.
One of my favorite kinds of character
Wellington Books is a researcher, a librarian, a scholar. He abhors guns, tries to avoid conflict, struggles against his upbringing and his overbearing father, and is usually found getting in Eliza’s way, making a muck of things as soon as the lead starts flying. He is also, without spoiling any plot elements, not that character at all.
I’m a huge sucker for characters with hidden depths and unexpected abilities, especially when even we don’t really get to see what’s going on when it happens. I’m also a huge sucker for librarians, so he’s got that going for him too.
Why should you read this book?
You should read this book because it is the best kind of surprise. It looks like just a silly, over-the-top bundle of tropes that have been done to death by Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess, but instead it turns that entire thought on its head and gives you a really great read.
I judged the book by its cover for months and lived to regret it. These books are fantastic, and you owe it to yourself to read them. Bravo.