Bronze Gods is a fast-paced detective mystery novel set in a fey steampunk England analogue. With great action, an interesting plot, and some first-class worldbuilding, you’ll find yourself pulled into the mystery along with the characters as they race against the clock to catch a madman before he can complete a dire ritual with unknown consequences. The writing team of husband and wife Andres and Anne Aguirre have begun a series that combines steampunk and fantasy elements into something quite new.
Danger stalks the city of steam and shadows.
Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…
Bronze Gods is set in the fey world of Hy Breasil. It appears to be a pretty typical Summer Court/Winter Court sort of British style mythology, with the interesting twist that the humans present here are descendants of sailors and travellers who became lost on their various voyages. So this world is at least tangentially connected to the ‘real’ world, though travel between them appears to be mostly one-way and entirely involuntary.
As a world, I actually quite enjoyed it. The blending of steampunk gadgetry with magic and the fey isn’t something I’d really ever read before, and their ersatz England is enough like the real one that there are very few moments of disconnection when something is just very strange. It has a fairly low level of steam technology, expressing more realistically simpler gadgets, and applications in transportation and pneumatics. This avoids my largest peeve of Steampunk which I call the ‘glue cogs to every flat surface’ problem that I find plagues a lot of fiction in the genre.
My biggest letdown in Bronze Gods was the character of Celeste Ritsuko. She starts off very interesting. She is the only female inspector with the Criminal Investigation Division. She worked extremely hard to get to her post, and basically did more and performed better than any of the men who would otherwise have been promoted over her. This is a feminist trope we should all be familiar with. In a patriarchal society, women who want to work, let alone who want to do ‘men’s’ work are frowned upon, and can generally only succeed by being essentially perfect at all times.
I really enjoy this kind of character, and given that Anne Aguirre self-describes as a feminist on her Twitter account and other media, I was expecting us to maybe see her earn the grudging respect of those around her while keeping her values and not just becoming ‘one of the lads.’ She has a man in her life we’re aware of without him being present (he informs her character without forming it), just like most men’s wives in books of this stripe, and everything was looking to fulfill my hopes for her development and expression.
Then, as I read through this book, I realised two things. The first being that Celeste’s entire character development in this book appears to be her realising that she is probably in love with her partner. The second being that this book fails the Bechdel Test. For those of you unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test is applied to media (books, movies, tv shows) and is passed when that media meets the following three criteria:
1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man
While there are multiple women in this book, many of whom have conversations, they are either with men or about men. Besides Ritsuko, the women in this book are basically victim, victim, victim, worried family, and sassy love competitor. It was a disappointment.
That said, if you don’t care about that sort of thing, the rest of the book is quite excellent. The pacing of the story is great. It hits some very good beats and sets a tone during the action scenes that is both intense and suspenseful. The abilities of the characters are realistic. Mikani especially gets the crap beaten out of him on several occasions, and you can see how their various stresses and injuries start to impact their abilities. Too many crime/action stories have heroes that pretty much function at 100% no matter what happens to them. You can see Mikani and Ritsuko getting tired, thinking slower, struggling to keep things going, and it creates a great sense of reality in what is otherwise a fairly fantastical story.
All told, this was a good book. Interesting if occasionally disappointing characters coupled with great action and pacing, in a world that blends fantasy with steampunk. Fans of Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris’ Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair will enjoy the steampunk-plus-crime-fighting style, and the great interaction between the two partners of the crime-fighting duo. Fans of mixing fey mythology with a more modern aesthetic (think Charles de Lint setting his urban stuff in 1800s England) will also find the setting and the worldbuilding quite engaging.
One final little quibble: when your book is about the police and they are investigating crimes to try and solve them, putting the tagline “Murder is their business…and business is good” on your front cover is extremely disconcerting. Stopping murder is their business, and you’d hope that they want the business of murder to be doing as poorly as possible.