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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

“Pax Britannia: The Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus”, by Jonathan Green

736 pages, Abaddon Books, ISBN-13: 978-1907519567

Pax Britannia: The Ulysses Quicksilver Omnibus by Jonathan Green brings together the steampunk adventure novels Unnatural History, Leviathan Rising and Human Nature and the short stories Vanishing Point and Christmas Past, all set in an alternate 1997 in which the British Empire is alive and well and wherein we follow the adventures of the dandy adventurer Ulysses Quicksilver. While the publisher, Abaddon Books, claims that these are set in a “steampunk” setting, I found that most of the steampunk elements are rather bolted on, almost as an afterthought. I must say, however, that while, for the most part, these are fine and entertaining adventure novels using a retro-science fiction approach, much of the late 1990s setting of Magna Britannia is a vague and sketchy world that doesn’t seem that convincing; indeed, all through the first omnibus (yes, there’s a second volume that I will review later) I kept wishing for more details of this alternate 1997 – oh, I got them later on, but more on that subject during my second review. The real thrust of Green’s thrilling narratives lie in the Frankensteinesque tampering with nature by scientists working in league with shadowy, subversive political movements attempting to overthrow a Victorian empire that has (rather like it’s Queen) outlived its usefulness; Quicksilver, with his manservant/batman Nimrod, is a Gentleman dandy, private detecting consultant and sometime Agent of the State, and Green’s plots, in the three novels and two short stories that are contained here, read more as detective/adventure stories than hardcore, steampunk sci-fi.

Of the three novels, Unnatural History is very much in this pattern, setting up the world of Ulysses Quicksilver and basically laying out the formula of these action packed steampunk adventures. The style is over-the-top derring-do, impossible escapes, and numerous cultural references that evoke the steampunk genre. The tale is fun and fast, with touches of comedy, to boot. Being new to the Quicksilver character, this book met expectations. Leviathan Rising, with its submersible passenger-liner setting, quickly developed into a Ten Little Indians meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with some perceptible sags in the plot-line, but was enjoyable nonetheless. All of the ingredients introduced in book one worked well here, and it is by all accounts a rip-roaring pulpy adventure tale that serves as the lynchpin of what came before and what will come after. Human Nature is a return to the form of the first novel and puts the series back on-track with a much better-paced storyline, although it tended to drag a bit. Green can go on for several pages, describing in detail a single action/fight scene with Quicksilver before delving into another then a half-page of pursuit followed by several more pages of our hero versus that same particular monster…it got old after a while, especially the last 30 pages, or so. The short stories, Vanishing Point and Christmas Past, fit neatly within the time-lines of the novels and Green often references events from the earlier adventures in passing, which lends a cohesiveness to the overall collection.

I don’t know if Green is following (or breaking, for that matter) any steampunk traditions here; I, for one, am rather dismissive of these as ersatz steampunk novels in the first place. However, they are perfectly readable pulp adventures, all the same, with all of the stories featuring a variation of sorts on the H.G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau prescription; certainly other influences pop up also, but ultimately it’s the Frankenstein idea that is used throughout until it becomes severely overused. Green also can get rather wordy at times and is enamored with many conventional tropes (especially those regarding Quicksilver’s tireless intrepid manservant Nimrod) and suffers an overabundance of impossible, unbelievable and incomprehensible escapes. I know these books are pulp-like and for fun but the descriptive become circular (i.e.: repetitive) and go on forever. The format is set up to accommodate reading in small bites, snippets or big long stretches, allowing for breaks just about anywhere in the text. It certainly is fast reading (not always for the best reasons). But I still liked it enough to buy the second omnibus, and plan on buying a third, too, should it ever be published.

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