What’s It About
The novel is set in an alternate history where, as a result of the 1811 Luddite Rebellion, the UK has been divided into the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. Keeping a keen eye on The Kingdom and the Republic (and a good chunk of Europe and America) is the International Patent Office. Their job is to ensure that only the right sort of technology is developed and introduced.
In amongst this mishigas is private detective Elizabeth Barnabus, formerly of the Kingdom, who lives a dual life as herself and her brother. She’s been requested to find an aristocrat who has disappeared into the Republic. An aristocrat who has ownership of a device that the Patent Office would like to get their hands on.
Should I Read It?
A qualified no. Here’s the thing, if you like novels with a strong female lead and a steam-punk flavour, then The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter might be worth the four days you’ll spend reading it.
Personally, while I appreciated the alternate history – the Patent Office is a neat idea – the actual “private detective searches for a missing person plot” is thin and predictable. More annoying is that as this is Book One of a duology – one that promises the fall of an Empire – it feels like Duncan has held back the genuinely interesting stuff for the second novel.
An insight into the all seeing, all knowing Patent Office:
“Do you know what that means – illegal? The Patent Office has built great libraries of books, the only purpose of which is to attempt to divide the seemly from the unseemly, the legal from the illegal. Two centuries of precedent. The wisdom of generations of lawyers and judges. They drew a line, but the harder they laboured to sharpen it, the wider it became. It’s now a chasm into which the entire Gas-Lit Empire might fall and be lost forever. The question is not whether my machines are illegal, it’s whether our glorious Patent Office is positively disposed to my case. As it happens, they are not.”
At the heart of the The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter is this fantastic idea, namely the International Patent Office. Set up to “protect and ensure the well-being of the common man,” the Patent Office is tasked with restricting those technologies that could potentially upset the natural order. The seemly from the unseemly. Essentially then, the Patent Office embodies our deep-seated suspicions and fears about all things science and scientific. If these guys existed today they would be denying climate change and forcing people to use dial-up modems.
Unfortunately, though, the Patent Office and its sinister workings is not the main focus of The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. Its presence is most definitely felt but more as an obstacle to be avoided then a concept to be explored.
Instead the novel centres on cross dressing private detective Elizabeth Barnabus. To Duncan’s credit, Elizabeth is a layered, engaging character. In a world where women are definitely second or third class citizens, Elizabeth relies solely on her skills of deception and disguise to reach her goals. If she needs a man to help, she dresses up as a her brother. And when a man does come to her rescue toward the end of the novel, it’s only because Elizabeth has planned it that way.
The cross dressing is, thankfully, played entirely straight. Elizabeth identifies as a woman but takes seriously her ability to become a man both in terms of look and body language. Where this element stumbles is in Elizabeth’s relationship with her student Julia. On accidentally meeting Elizabeth dressed as her brother, Julie becomes enamoured with him. If this isn’t clichéd enough, when Julia, again accidentally, sees Elizabeth transform into a man she reacts in horror. Julia’s response to the truth about Elizabeth is genuine given her conservative upbringing, but there’s something forced and offensive about the whole situation. The infatuation, which is only a minor sub-plot, didn’t need to be in the novel, and it unintentionally sends a negative message about cross dressing.
However, my biggest disappointment with the book is its uninspired search for a missing person plot. Considering how strongly the ideas of illusion and magic feature throughout the novel I expected there to be a major reveal at some point, a reversal I didn’t see coming. And there’s definitely an attempt at this toward the novel’s conclusion. Except it’s a reveal so obvious that it makes Elizabeth look foolish for not figuring it out earlier.
What ultimately hurts The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is the same thing that hampered Maplecroft. As the first book of a duology it does feel like that Duncan has kept back all the interesting stuff for the second novel. It’s not even clear how the events of this book could lead to the promised fall of the Gas-lit Empire. In anycase I won’t be sticking around to find out.
One last thing – The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is described as steampunk and yet the novel is devoid of steam or steam-driven technology. Am I missing something here? Or is it enough for a book to feature a dirigible for it to be called steampunk?