Next to perhaps River of Stars and The Marching Dead, both of which I went into with high expectations, I don't think I've enjoyed a book this year as much as I did Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl. From the concept to the characters, I enjoyed every aspect of it and came away wanting more . . . much more.
David Barnett's novel has been called "the ultimate Victoriana / steampunk mash-up" but that doesn't begin to describe it. It's also an old-fashioned horror story, a penny dreadful romp around the world, and an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones. Barnett takes us from the streets of London to the sands of Egypt, and from the dizzying heights of battling dirigibles to the claustrophobic depths of ancient pyramids, all with vampires, mummies, devil dogs, and monstrous frogs along for the ride.
More than anything, however, this is a tale of heroes. It's a story about heroes lost and found, made and unmade. It's a story about what makes a hero, why we worship them, and why the world needs them. It's also a story about how heroes can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Gideon Smith starts the novel as a shy young man in search of a hero to delve into the mystery hidden below the cliffs; a mystery that he is certain claimed the life of his father's crew. It's a search that brings him into contact with the likes of Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bathory, as well as the mechanical girl who captures his heart. Ultimately, it's also a journey that brings him to the realization of his own innocent brand of heroism.
As for the mechanical girl who makes up the other half of the title, Maria is a fascinating creation who doesn't get nearly the page time she deserves. She's a fully fledged character, as likable as she is sympathetic, but she's more of a catalyst than a character. It's a search for answers and a desire for vengeance that takes Gideon Smith through the first half of the novel, and a love for Maria that carries him through to the end. She does have a pivotal role to play in the story, both as a peril and a power in the climactic showdown. I won't spoil the adventure with details, but it's safe to say a mechanical girl pales in comparison to what rises from the depths of the pyramid at the end.
In the end, there's not just room for a sequel here, but a cliffhanger that demands it. That's not to say Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl isn't a complete story on its own, because it is, but like the best of the penny dreadfuls it leaves us with us with the start of a whole other adventure. Exciting, adventurous, and exceptionally well-told, filled with equal parts amusement and astonishment, this is sure to be a fixture of best-of lists come the end of the year.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins