Review: Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper by David Barnett

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  • Kindle:$9.99
  • Paperback:$12.55
  • Series: Gideon Smith (Book 3)
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (October 13, 2015)
  • Language: English

I’m two-thirds of the way behind. I had not previously made Mr. Gideon “Hero of the Empire” Smith’s acquaintance and here we are already deep into his third adventure!

For those as unfamiliar as I a brief recap: we are visiting a steampunk, Victorian-Edwardianesque era that owes its existence more to the penny dreadfuls than it does to history. North America is carved up between the European empires and break-away republics; steamcabs vie for space with horse drawn carriages on the narrow streets of London’s burroughs and dirigibles fill the sky.

Bizarre artifacts with strange powers compete with technological marvels (and apparently merge with them) and the British Empire advances its interests and protects itself with mid 19th century versions of James Bond – Heroes of the Empire – controlled by that era’s ‘M’ – a mysterious Mr. Walsingham.

There’s a bit of a twist though; like Holmes, it seems that each of these heroes is accompanied by a Watson, who in at least some cases is also the real hero.

Whether this is true of Smith’s biographer – Aloysius Bent, a newspaperman recently demoted from the Argus to write for the penny dreadful World Marvels & Wonders – or not is difficult to tell because Gideon spends much of the novel mesmerized and unconscious of his true identity, which forces Bent to the forefront, whether he normally resides there or not.

I get ahead of myself, so I’ll get the negatives out of the way now;  I was initially put off by what I considered to be a poor depiction of seamanship in the opening pages (taking notice only because of the numerous stories I’ve read by another Englishman (turned Australian), A. Bertram Chandler, who was in real life a merchant mariner).  Following a bit of correspondence with both the author and the publicist, I was encouraged to relax my sense of wonder filters just a tad more than usual and so continued.  I did, however, find several other discontinuous moments scattered randomly about in this novel, blips that I attribute more to editorial than to authorial cause.

And it may also be that this particular version of pulpy steampunk treads dangerously close to the edge of my willingness to suspend disbelief.  Or so I thought until I read the following line:

“Yet more penny dreadful melodrama.  You must understand, Garcia, these people live their lives as though everything is a badly written adventure story….”

We can take that word “badly” with a strong dose of salt as it is uttered by one of the numerous villains in this tale, and like all good pulp villains the world over, tends to various forms of exaggeration.

My approach to Mask of the Ripper was off-kilter;  I was expecting steampunk parallelities.  What I got was meta steampunk parallelities; Barnett’s world is a weird and twisted mirror of our own where science fiction has influenced the direction technology and society move, but more so; a world as envisioned by a pulp writer whose stories are based on absolute truth, but presented so as to be taken less than seriously.  Imagine the Back to the Future series as being an historical documentary covering the creation of our present, but played for cheap laughs and utterly disconnecting it from reality.

I’m not being entirely clear here. I’ll try one other approach:  in our reality (loosely), authors write science fiction tales that are published in pulp magazines and, with the exception of a handful of fans, no one takes trips to the moon, blasters, atomic weapons, warp drives or tricorders seriously.  However, inspired by these fantastical notions, young children grow up to become scientists and engineers and work to give those notions reality.  In Barnett’s world, the fantastic creations and circumstances are reality and authors are inspired to write about them in the pulps as if they were fiction.

It’s quite the twist and comment.  I’m probably reaching, but it seems an interesting critique of a (real) world that is increasingly anti-science.

Anyway.  Barnett’s characters – Gideon Smith, Aloysius Bent, Rowena Fanshaw (belle of the airways) and Maria the Mechanical Girl, Dr. Mesmer, Mr. Walsingham, Mrs. Cadwallader, Garcia, all the rest and not to mentioned the borrowed Lestrade, Watson, Holmes, Einstein, King Louis and all the rest are, in a nutshell, very pulpy.  They’re drawn from stereotypes, but each has a twist, often over the top, that may take a bit getting used to.  If you can give their peccadilloes a bit of rope, I think you’ll find that you really like the ones you’re supposed to like and hate those you’re supposed to hate.  Barnett manages to out-stereotype the stereotype by playing it to the hilt.

The story itself is pure adventure yarn placed in an imaginative setting;  if Doyle’s London is your London, you’ll find familiar terrain refreshingly presented.

It is, however, in the nature of some of the messaging included in the tale that Mask departs from typical adventures in the land of steam.  Yes Virginia, there is messaging in Gideon Smith’s adventure.  Huge heaping piles of it, to the tune of fully-realized female characters who question their place in society with real agency, to questions of gay relationships and whether or not such “afflictions” ought to be allowed to compromise the good deeds performed by the afflicted;  transgender ism is introduced, handled in a positive manner (so far as I can tell;  Barnett apparently consulted with Cheryl Morgan in order to get it right – good for you David!) and with unexpected characters (Holmes fans my find their knickers in a bit of a twist depending upon how catholic their tastes run), not to mention the potential for a few Helen O’Loy moments thrown in for good measure.

Barnett has largely transferred many of the societal issues regarding identity that we wrestle with today to his alternate reality;  throughout the non-stop action (Mask of the Ripper turned into a page-turner about a third of the way through), we are time and again led to ponder the question: is a person’s body and/or their orientation who that person is?  Can a mechanical girl just be a girl?  Does being gay diminish someone’s heroism? What does, or should take precedence?  The intangibles that make a person a person, or their physical make-up and appearance?  (And who the hell has any right to judge who someone else loves as long as they’re happy?)

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper is an enjoyable, fast-paced romp that manages to ask, and sometimes answer, some important questions about identity.

***

A few other observations:  I took the penny dreadful Bent writes for to be the steampunk equivalent of Amazing Stories (but with the twist mentioned earlier);  fandom has apparently started in the Edwardian era, with the happy bonus that one might encounter Harry Seldon, or Northwest Smith, or Dr. Secord walking down the street!

I get the impression (based on little familiarity with the world David Barnett has created) that “Heroes of the Empire” are of the Professor Challenger/Quatermain variety.

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