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The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter by Rod Duncan3.5 stars
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Rod Duncan is a crime writer from Leicester, and his trilogy-opener The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is his first foray into Victorian steampunk adventure. It follows the exploits of Elizabeth Barnabas, a young woman who fled her home as a teenager when her family, a troupe of traveling performers, was targeted by a vindictive duke with the intent of forcing Elizabeth into a life of indentured servitude. Fleeing north from the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales, across the border into the Anglo-Scottish Republic, Elizabeth ekes out a living playing the role of her own brother, using skills of disguise that she has learned through her upbringing as a performer, and working as an “intelligence gatherer” — or as we would put it, a detective.

One day, Elizabeth is approached by a young duchess from the Kingdom who’s seeking her missing brother. Now he is on the run in the Republic from agents of the Patent Office, the main law enforcement body of the Gas-Lit Empire, the informal name given to the coalition of nations in which Duncan’s story is set. The ostensible goal of the Patent Office is to regulate “unseemly” technology — in other words, that which would put too many honest citizens out of work. But could the duchess’s brother possess something more, something that could be a great boon to the common man and a terrible threat to those in power?

Elizabeth’s quest leads her into numerous white-knuckle pursuits and hairs-breadth escapes as the potential magnitude of what she’s gotten herself into becomes clearer. Going up against the Patent Office means literally putting your life on the line, but, forced into accepting the duchess’s job out of financial desperation, Elizabeth quickly realizes the only way out of her predicament is through it. She soon encounters another famed traveling circus where the missing brother is thought to have been hiding out. This causes her to not only reconnect with her old way of life, but it drives home to Elizabeth just what the brother may have in his possession, what he’s hiding from the authorities, and just how dangerous the situation is. Not just to Elizabeth, but the nation.

There’s an enormous amount to admire about this book, the sort of discovery that provides a unique sense of satisfaction to a reader, the kind you get from unearthing a modest storytelling gem in mass market paperback while all around you are heavily-hyped, high-profile event titles. Never grandiose nor pretentious in its approach, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is just an expertly crafted tale that offers both epic narrative sweep and intimate human dimension with equal dexterity.

Duncan does pretty much everything right with his finely-drawn heroine, allowing Elizabeth to be smart and strong and resourceful, while also just the right degree of vulnerable, without ever lapsing into a damsel in distress. Elizabeth does live in a regimented, sexist society, but she navigates it smartly and believably. Her moments of outwitting the system that keeps her in her place are heroic and often funny, but never unrealistically superheroic.

Duncan also avoids that most dreaded of clichés, the romantic subplot. It’s not that there’s no attraction towards Elizabeth felt by certain characters, or even reciprocated by her towards them. It’s just that there are more important things as stake, and Duncan ensures Elizabeth remains focused and independent and driven, her eyes always on her goal. Her emotional through-lines are always clear and her relationships with other characters get satisfying resolutions.

Also, Duncan’s expertly-timed moments of narrative misdirection pay off handsomely. As the frequently-quoted Bullet-Catcher’s Handbook (a reference guide used as something of a bible among traveling performers) points out, if the audience walks away happy, they won’t mind how you tricked them.

Steampunk often relies too heavily on its Victorian window dressing for its romanticist appeal. But Duncan doesn’t make any of that the star of his show. Good storytelling can’t only be about world-building. It has to be about the characters moving through the world. And on that score, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, a modest little triumph for Rod Duncan and another feather in the cap of Angry Robot Books, is a finely aimed projectile that hits it bullseye.

Followed by Unseemly Science.