01/06/2012. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Gollancz. 485 page hardback. Price: GBP16.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08635-7.
check out websites: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.thegoldensprout.com
'The Mechanical Messiah' is something of a sequel to the 'The Japanese Devil Fish Girl' and features a steampunk version of Victorian England that not only survived the Martian invasion of 1898, as described by HG Wells, but turned the tables on those invaders from the red planet, wiping them out and thereby acquiring spaceflight and other technologies far ahead of the other nations on Earth. 'The Mechanical Messiah' isn't simply a follow-on story, though, and while it does have a few characters in common with the preceding novel, it's an entirely self-contained work that works quite well on its own merits. At heart, it's a classic good-versus-evil story told with Robert Rankin's usual imagination and flair, but ornate rather than complex, with the sheer variety of allusions, anachronisms, in-jokes and puns sometimes getting in the way of the storytelling.
Starting with the basic plot, this involves a series of inexplicable murders at a music hall. While the police seem unable to make any progress, consulting detective Cameron Bell is on the case as well, working in a way that most readers will immediately realise parallels that of the Great Detective himself and Rankin surely meant readers to note the similarities between this character's name and that of the real Dr. Joseph Bell, upon whom Sherlock Holmes was, in part, based. Indeed, Rankin seems to be wanting to create a Holmesian set-up in the first third of the book, though not entirely successfully. Whereas the best detective stories are either short and fast-paced or else slow and detailed, 'The Mechanical Messiah' is neither. The first third of the book meanders through Victorian London, getting bogged down at times underneath all the madcap characters and clunky puns.
It's worth persisting, though, because once the story switches into being a straight-forward adventure, it works very much better. Alongside Bell are showgirl Alice Lovell, elderly inventor Colonel Katterfelto and a talking monkey called Darwin, all of whom are finely-crafted characters the reader will enjoy, though Alice Lovell is, it has to be admitted, at times irritating and remarkably self-absorbed. The story flies from Earth to Venus and back again and, along the way, Rankin seems to throw in just about every Victorian character, real or imaginary, he can think of, from ‘ Alice In Wonderland’ through to the Elephant Man. Besides these are the cryptic Venusians of Venus and the amusing, if a bit stupid, Jovians of Jupiter.
Rankin attempts to craft a sort of metaphysical statement towards the end, one that involves God, the nature of evil and the role of the Tempter, but ultimately this boils down to a goodies-versus-baddies stand-off set against a music hall background like the one where the whole thing started. Rankin manages to balance the roles of the lead characters pretty well, with each having their parts to play as events reach their climax. The final pay-off isn't entirely satisfactory, at best a deferment rather than a resolution, but it works well enough for the reader not to feel short-changed.
Overall, the book felt a bit more weighted down than 'The Japanese Devil Fish Girl' and consequently a little less easy to read, but it's still an amusing novel and an entertaining slice of steampunk.
Add SFcrowsnest.com daily news updates to your own web site or blog - just cut and paste the code below...
Stephen Hunt's novels - USA