Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: The Janus Affair

The Janus Affair
The Janus Affair by Philippa Ballantine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At first, as I was reading this, I found myself in the position of the parents at the school play in Down With Skool!. "At least," I said, "it's better than last year's."

The first Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel has been widely praised, and has even won an award, but personally I was profoundly unimpressed with it (my Goodreads review is here). At the end of that review, I said that despite its many flaws it looked like it had promise, and that the sequel could well be better. It is, although some of the same flaws are still on display.

First, of course, the jokey names. I'm not a fan of jokey names - I think it's a cheap attempt at getting a laugh (and from me it doesn't). Books and Braun, seriously? Not to mention Bruce Campbell (apparently the name of a modern B-movie actor), Miss Shillingworth (the equivalent of Miss Moneypenny), and the insertions of the authors' friends: the clankertons Axelrod and Blackwell, and the cracksman Fast Nate Lowell. Each time this sort of thing occurred, I was jerked out of what suspension of disbelief I'd managed to achieve and reminded of the book's status as a work of fiction. But that could be just me.

Steampunk, like Camelot, is a silly place, and I can't really carp at the anachronistic technology. It's a genre trope, and I always try to allow for genre tropes. But the book is full of other anachronisms, too. There are two real historical people in The Janus Affair, Kate Sheppard and her son Douglas, but they are the wrong ages, and I suspect there's not much else about them that's historically accurate either. In 1896, which is when the book is set, Kate Sheppard was 49 (not "over 50"), and, more importantly, Douglas was 16, not the full-grown man portrayed. The New Zealand rugby team wears black and performs the haka, 8 years before the 1905 "Originals".

So let's assume that no historicity is intended. I'm not sure that excuses the many anachronisms of speech. I'll talk about the New Zealand speech, since as a New Zealander I know how we talk. The New Zealanders use the Maori greeting Kia Ora, and refer to New Zealand as Aotearoa (which was a name first used by a European in 1898, and wasn't commonly used by pakeha - non-Maori New Zealanders - until about the 1990s, as Kia Ora also wasn't). I don't think New Zealanders called people "mate" in the late 19th century, either, though I'm open to correction. Most of the slang seems to be contemporary - there's even the phrase "not all that," meaning "not very good," which is American ghetto slang from the early 1990s.

Even if we set all that aside, there are a great many - a very great many - language mistakes. Not as many as in the first book, where they were almost constant - here, we go whole chapters without one - but they are still numerous.

The authors are obviously bad with homonyms and near-homonyms: they write fair for fare, bobble for bauble, eluded for alluded, touting for toting, grizzly for grisly and so on.

They (and their editor) don't spellcheck adequately: women's is punctuated as womens' (twice), and visible is spelled visable.

A woman's name is spelled Francis (which is the masculine form - the feminine is Frances).

Some passages, mostly Books' internal dialogue, are full of awkward sentences like this: "This was another unique trait of Eliza's semi-clockwork housekeeper: she was not a fixture or addition to the household." What does that even mean? Or "Even if the women were to receive the vote, the right would never befall on Alice as she was… merely a contrivance to the manor"? It's gibberish. If you must write like a 19th-century newspaper (and really, must you?), at least do it competently. Or even comprehensibly. There are also many sentences with words missing or misplaced or simply wrong: "More disturbing of all…" Even the best sentences are seldom vivid, and I never thought "that's exactly the right word choice" or "that's really well put", while I often thought "that's the wrong word for what you apparently mean".

Then there's "serve at Her Majesty's pleasure" - you keep using that phrase. I don't think it means what you think it means.

As I said before, this kind of error was much more common in the earlier book, but it's far from eliminated in this one.

There are errors of continuity. Books didn't break the rules in the rugby game. He says it, Douglas says it. And then a couple of chapters later, "he had blatantly broken the rules…".

There are errors, or what look like errors, of scene. How the heck do you throw a tray at someone who's facing you and hit them in the elbow? Or punch someone who's facing you in the kidney?

Dr Sound keeps giving the main characters days off every time something disturbing happens. Another anachronism? A present-day employer would do that, but would a 19th-century one?

Likewise, the duke and the doctor addressing each other by their first names? What?

Unlike the first book, where it felt severely forced to me, the attraction between Books and Braun seems much more natural here. But there's another forced-seeming attraction: The assassin is attracted to her heavily cyborged Maestro at the end of a chapter in which she continually complains to herself how high-handed he is and how he treats her with no respect. And then nothing more ever comes of it.

So, still a great many flaws. On the macro level, though, the book I thought improved a lot on its predecessor. I've noticed that Phillipa Ballantine has a tendency to leap straight into the cruelty, mayhem and death without waiting to establish empathy (which is why I've so seldom finished her books), and she's much more restrained this time. There's even a brief moment, admittedly after someone dies and not before, where we're told (though not shown) how devastating that was to her family left behind. This is progress. There aren't nearly so many innocents slaughtered this time, and the villain isn't as over-the-top.

The main action still comes later than I would prefer, but there are bits of action scattered through the earlier part of the book. A book like this cries out to have lots of action scenes, to race from one to another (a tried-and-tested way to distract readers from flaws, incidentally), and we don't get that.

All in all, The Janus Affair earned its third star, and I'd like to hope that with hard work and attention to detail the next one could make it to four.

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