Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire, and Eliza D. Braun work as agents of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences in Queen Victoria's England, which includes the British Islands and her many colonies. At the start of the book, a secret society called the House of Usher has kidnapped Books, who is an Archivist for the Ministry. Agent Braun blows the wall open with dynamite and rescues Books
in a hail of bullets.
However, Eliza was
sent not to rescue Wellington but to kill him to prevent his information from
falling into the hands of the enemy. Because Eliza disobeyed, the Ministry's chief sends her to the Archives to work with Wellington and perhaps to learn some subtlety. Both Wellington and Eliza are horrified,
but Eliza soon finds a section of the Archive where unsolved and forgotten cases go. She
learns that her former partner's last case was sent there, and no one is continuing the investigation. She decides to investigate without the Ministry's permission and drags Wellington with her. Eliza's former partner, Harry, disappeared for a few weeks then returned
insane and has been shut up in an asylum.
Phoenix Rising is a humorous steampunk adventure with plenty of action. The
two main characters are constantly forced to deal with their differences. Archivist Books seems to be
the epitome of a Victorian gentleman: calm, collected, and very proper. He enjoys reading and opera, working by himself in the Archives, and inventing new steam-powered gadgets. He seems to be from an upper-class
British family, but he harbors a dark and mysterious past. New Zealander Agent Braun is impatient, impulsive, and quick to anger.
An unorthodox Victorian woman, she wears trousers, pistols, and a bulletproof corset to work and enjoys using dynamite. She is also a good actress and
accustomed to using any assets she has to get the job done on the field. She was very close to her former partner, Harry. Eliza and Wellington have trouble trusting each other but
must to solve Harry's last case. Of course, a hint of romance springs up between them.
Wellington in the main point-of-view character, and a handful of chapters are
told from Eliza's point-of-view. Three other characters also have short point-of-view chapters. While the writing style is humorous, some of the content is darker. The villains are quite vile and engage in murder, betrayal, and rape, which
is somewhat at odds with the writing style.
Unfortunately, there a few contradictions within the narrative. If Eliza was
so close to Harry, why has she not visited him earlier? Why didn't she start to investigate his former case earlier? Also, for a covert agent, she draws a lot of attention to herself.
The book is supposedly set in a Victorian England with steampunk technology,
but there is little information to indicate how the society has changed.
Although Eliza is quite an unconventional woman, nobody gives her more than a few glares when she engages in sword-fighting in public or drives a carriage through the streets of London while chasing mysterious figures. In real Victorian England, she would have been arrested and possibly committed to a madhouse. Also, when she and Books are pretending to be a married upper-class couple, they behave in
what would have been quite a shocking manner for the times. A few other women in the book also engage in rather unorthodox behavior, but women's position in life in general does not seem to be
parallel these characters.
The steampunk tech is interesting. In addition to her bulletproof
corset, Eliza sometimes wears a steam-powered gauntlet that allows her to hold
her own in a fistfight, and Wellington has invented a difference engine for
sorting out the archive's folders. The Ministry has a Research and Development
section which seems to be dedicated to steampunk technology.
The main plot is wrapped up in this book, but two side plots are left unresolved
with plenty of hints for possible adventures to come.