An embarrassing number of weeks ago, a friend of mine at Xchyler publishing gave me access to a copy of Pete Ford’s debut novel, Mr. Gunn & Dr. Bohemia. It is a good-natured steampunk adventure about Cornelius and Sophie Gunn, a British journalist and his wife who uncover a conspiracy that threatens all of Europe. In order to thwart the plot, they must team up with Dr. Bohemia, a reclusive inventor and scientist.
Despite my belated review, the book is a very quick read boasting easy prose and brisk pacing. Those finding themselves fatigued by the unrelenting grimness of most modern fantasy novels will find relief in Gunn & Bohemia, which is chipper throughout. Even in the wake of grave firefights, or on the lam from the law, our heroes are always in high spirits and rarely succumb to the take-no-prisoners tactics that have become so prevalent in modern fiction.
Unfortunately, this intrepidness and unambiguous morality comes at the expense of distinctive characterization. Most characters suffer from very scant personal histories, posses few personal ties, and the heroes all have very vague aspirations for the future, beyond halting he evil conspiracy they have discovered. They are also short on personal identifiers, and baring a few situations requiring Bohemia's scientific skills, one gets the sense that you could shuffle the characters like a deck of cards in a given situation and end up with a similar outcome. The villains fair no better. The final confrontation is straight out of a Disney flick, right down to peels of evil laughter and a conspicuously convenient refusal to kill the defenseless heroes. The plot has a couple crafty turns to keep you guessing throughout, but it too can feel a bit simple, and Ford’s language also occasionally falls prey to over-familiar metaphors, like ‘lighting bolts of pain.’
The book makes good use of steampunk staples ranging from massive airships and metal prosthetics that put our existing technology to shame, to night-vision goggles, lightning shooting rods, and primitive computers linked to telegraph wires. Even though they have the least impact on the plot, my favorite pieces of fanciful tech in the novel were the Dynamics: a series of moving sculptures wrought from clockwork. Even though the Europe is imperiled by a bunch of hyper-nationalistic bell-ends with napoleon complexes, Ford presents a vision of Europe that is ultimately optimistic, and almost Utopian in tone.
I would not recommend Gunn & Bohemia to everybody, but the mix of rollicking adventure and good humor delivered by distinctly British voice will likely endear itself to fans of Dr. Who. The book also serves as a conceptually pure introduction to the steampunk genre uncomplicated by supernatural or Lovecraftian elements. Even though it is not written as a young adult novel, there is no content more objectionable than what you would expect to find in a Harry Potter novel, lending itself to younger readers as well.