MY RATING: MY RATING:
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gideon Smith and his compatriots return to England to find themselves plunged into a set of mysteries connected, in ways both direct and uniquely unpredictable, to the infamous case of the murderer known as the Ripper. The ramifications of each of these mysteries will change their relationships with the British Crown as well as with one another.
PROS: Skillfully entangled plot lines; thoughtfully rendered main and secondary characters; surprising uses of Victoriana elements; madcap fun.
CONS: So many well-drawn characters leave readers less chance for a deep connection with individuals; speedy pace could make various elements feel less a gallery than a hodgepodge; works better as an installation of the series than a stand-alone.
BOTTOM LINE: An exciting addition to a uniquely fascinating series.
I’ve never really understood the oft-repeated modern praise for “non-stop action.” What good is action if no one stops to reflect on the meaning of it? In weak moments, I’m afraid I thought members of this action-faction were simply victims of reading a lot of books with poor pacing. But David Barnett has changed my understanding of the meaning of the phrase.
With Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, Barnett has maximized his plotting prowess. Not only does each choice lead inexorably to the next, each does so at a story-justified breakneck pace, while the fallout becomes the next interlocking trestle of the steamtrain track. Gideon Smith follows a lead and loses his memory. Maria-the-Mechanical-Girl follows a lead and finds pieces of her past. Rowena Fanshawe follows a path of her own, and finds a lot more than she bargains for.
Somehow, Barnett does not fail to let us share the cast’s internal struggles as we go: Gideon Smith is asked to rediscover what makes a hero; Rowena Fanshawe, a truly self-made heroine, struggles with being left to sit in the defendant’s seat for a crime she contemplated but didn’t commit; a certain borrowed Detective Inspector* weighs his career against his non-traditional romance.
Maria the Mechanical Girl has come into her own in this installment of the Gideon Smith adventures. She repairs her own wounds, confronts villains, saves damsels (well, one damsel, at least, besides herself), solves a mystery, and saves the day during one of the climax’s grand confrontations even while coming to terms with her own evolving person-hood.
For all the pell-mell nature of the narrative, the multiple character arcs move a step at a time. Is this a drawback? This episodic limitation seems endemic to the nature of a series, but Barnett employs it to allow an increasing tension and desire for intimacy between reader and characters. I’m left craving more, keen to know what’s next for Gideon, Rowena, Maria-the-Mechanical-Girl, Aloysius Bent, and all the rest. Even secondary characters’ situations evolve, and are fleshed out.
This volume should work for new readers, and Barnett does an impressive job of seamlessly laying in the essential information, and the story certainly stands on its own. However, certain moments will have more resonance for those who’ve read the previous installments.
Despite a stolen dinosaur, a Mesmer descendant, a tragi-triumphant backstory, deaths ferocious and familiar, not one, not two, not three, but four cases of “a man from the past,” and, oh yes, the titular Ripper, this book never feels like a hodgepodge nor even a grand mosaic. Rather, these elements (and more) combine like the meshing gears in the Brass Dragon Apep: together, they are a creature that soars.
That’s not to say that I’m calling this story uplifting. While Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper remains steadfastly in the camp wherein heroes are actually heroic and their wins are decisive (bar one but SPOILERS), the situations here are dark and complex. We experience the macabre, the stilted social conventions, the seers, and the brilliantly mad, the spookily insane. From the trans-girl on the stage and the single girl on the streets, and the small individual choices and the systemic ramifications.
Every time I read Gideon Smith, I’m impressed again by the combination of speed and surprises, the melding of a romp and a heartbreak. Barnett is a superb writer offering us a unique adventure. And I’m reading.
*This story also involves an appearance by a certain deerstalker cap. I am brave enough to admit, I prefer many modern interpretations to the original depictions of the Famous Detective. His portrayal here has become my favorite of any written account.