REVIEW SUMMARY: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon reveals stories behind stereotypes and inverts circumstances driving situations in a fun-to-read style, with characters I’m looking forward to seeing again.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of a hero, Gideon Smith, chasing a mechanical (fully flying)(marginally magical)(somewhat stolen) brass dragon from London to America’s Wild(er) West. Because it happens to be piloted by the mechanical girl he (has yet to admit aloud he) loves.
PROS: a fun to read adventure in a singular Weird West.
CONS: too-convenient coincidences (which may be sub-genre-representations)
BOTTOM LINE: part Steampunk, part Adventure, part Weird West, all in all a good, fun read.
Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is a 2015 version of the classic adventure tale, complete with monsters mechanical, unnatural, political, and all too human, and adventures physical, political, and romantic included. I am not a regular reader of adventure-centered fiction nor of steampunk, so I may have missed some of the tropes of the sub-genres. But this book sounded so fun, I had to read it anyway!
I came to Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon as a new reader. But, despite not having read the previous adventure, I felt perfectly comfortable with these characters and this world. You need not read the first book in this series to enjoy the second. That said, the many helpfully informative references made in this volume to Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl may make you want to search it out before book 3, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, arrives in October.
Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is the story of a hero, Gideon Smith, chasing a mechanical (fully flying, marginally magical, somewhat stolen) brass dragon from London to America’s Wild(er) West. Because it happens to be piloted by the mechanical girl he (has yet to admit aloud he) loves. He’s aided by his sidekick foil Aloysius Bent and the dashing, daring Rowena Fanshawe, and opposed in turns by an overtly evil tyrant, a covertly evil personage, a purportedly evil giant headless mechanical samurai, and many more.
David Barnett presents the novel with the flavor of the “sensational story” style of the in-world newspaper World Marvels & Wonders which he uses to good effect. I appreciated the framing device of the “Godzilla” creature with which the book opens and closes as well as the inverted climax in which the creature features prominently. Barnett’s use of inflated phrases and titles such as “Holder of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal” evoke not merely a Victorian flavor, but the very Adventure Story flavor of a sensational periodical or “scientific romance” of the time. I believe readers will especially appreciate the way Barnett uses this as a mirror to contrast the serious-but-sensational coverage of Gideon Smith’s adventures with the madcap-yet-sincere story of the novel itself. My favorite moment in the book is when our hero’s plans are upended by the popularity and reach of the newspaper itself.
The characters are a bit formulaic on the surface. However, their backgrounds, histories, motivations, and personalities are so well drawn that it is hard to complain about the tomboy airship pilot, the crass newspaperman, and the bewildered boy hero. The same is true for the villains. They are caricatures of themselves, but embedded with the reasons those stereotypes exist, and they’re all entertaining, the heroes all endearing, the villains all fully human, and they all surprised me in small, character-establishing ways.
The hero and his sidekick visit an island of prehistoric monsters, but not for the reasons you might expect. An airship pilot rides to the rescue, but not without getting entangled in a way you might not expect. Amazing mechanicals attack one another, but not with the outcome you might expect. The events in the book, while almost too conveniently connected, are connected in less than predictable ways. The twists are well done, but perhaps over-done. Barnett is so determined to twist the reader’s expectations, the twist was what I came to expect.
While the motivations driving decisions which lead to events are craftily built, the resultant not-exactly-coincidental circumstances and nick-of-time rescues are just a tad too convenient for my taste. But, they are seamlessly welded together, and they do suit the “sensational story” nature of the novel. The parts of Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon which are most shocking for the characters themselves feel less than captivating to a long-time reader of fantastic fiction. What’s so crazy about falling in love with a mechanical girl? What’s so grotesque about a guy with a lot of mechanical body modifications? But these too can be seen through the lens of world-sense-building. In fact, Barnett manages to make it pleasant to see protagonists having to come to terms with things that antagonists –and modern audiences– find perfectly acceptable.
I don’t know enough about any of the sub-genres to say whether Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is more steampunk, adventure tale, or weird western, but it’s at least a bit of all three. Gideon Smith’s Wild West seemed a little spare, but what we do see is detailed and delightful. The members’ bar of the North Beach Aerodrome comes complete with accordion music and a chapel. The Texas wilderness is full of caves and its own not-so-great Great Wall. The presentation of the native characters gave me pause at first, but the issue was remedied at the end by ascribing human, individual traits to what threatened to be stereotypes.
That seems to be David Barnett’s strength: revealing the stories behind the stereotypes and inverting the circumstances driving the situations. These are done in a fun-to-read style, with characters I’m looking forward to seeing again. I admit to being delighted that both of the women who could be considered love interests for our hero happen to be flyers. I hope we get to spend a lot more time in places like Aubrey’s Bar and Grill in the Union Hall of the New York Chapter of the Esteemed Brethren of International Airshipmen.