David Barnett gave a great interview to My Bookish Ways (here) which you should definitely read if your interested in Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl; he talks about how he did not set out to write a steampunk or an alternate history novel or any of the other pop sub-genres but just a novel that was great fun and he succeds handily. Gideon and the Mechanical Girl is a great fun read, at times hilariously funny in its irony, its a look at how fans of fiction deal with struggles at times and its touching in its treatment of its characters. I the oddest things I would say about it is that though it has all the trappings of steampunk; clockwork "people", weird technology, odd magic, mythic monsters, young daring heroes, Zeppelins and Victorian cameos galore David's novel feels like something totally different. Its really lore of a penny blood, a penny dreadful and a pulp serial adventure all wrapped up in a look at the role of heroic fiction in the world. This story has heroes that are young and untested, heroes that are old and wanting a last chance to glory and characters struggling to find themselves all around; tor.com has published a couple of short works that spotlight the main character Gideon from early in his story, a background character called Wallsingham both ruin nothing of the novel and are very different glimpses into this world and a peek at the first chaper about a normal shop girl in London which is rather chilling. Gideonmand the Mechanical Girl has lots of the heart and enthusiasm of Raiders of the Lost Arc mixed with the classic Hero's journey and steampunk setting and I thnk appealing to more then just subgenre lovers.
Set solidly in an alternate late Victorian Britian where America failed to break free, the new world is a patchwork of interests; where there are steam powered vehicles, clockwork wound engines wild tales of scientific adventure pulp daring do and the classes god forbid ever try to mix. "Gideon" is an adveture novel that has as much in common with the old penny dreadfuls as it does with the 20th century pulp serials and is certain to find many fans but I will give a word of caution if you expect kitschy steampunk sensibilities and all that go with them you may be in for a surprise. This novel is a novel of heroic quests of revenge and discovery, tours along the countryside and to the airways, it has a mechanical girl as in the title but vampires monsters and other things abound here. This setting has as much to do with ancient magics as it does with crazy inventions and is really likely to thrill readers looking for an old fashioned Saturday serial like tale. David's story is classic in that it is the untried young man coming into himself but it is equal amounts intrigue of older heroes who's time is coming due and who may become something else.
Gideon Smith, our titular hero, is a young man looking at an in appealing future; he is likely to inherit his father's clockwork fishing trawler in a nowhere Yorkshire town and live out a life bereft of the adventure he craves. He is a well too old fan of the adventures of the Hero of the Empire Captian Trigger who's stories of daring do appear in the penny dreadfuls and make Gideon long for foreign shore like the splintered colonies in the Americas, expeditions to the floor of the ocean and to fight the likes of desiccated mummies, vampires and the secessionists of Texas. It will be gaining nothing away that he gets his wish and gets the call to adventure in the worst of all possible ways, that being tragedy. He is a character driven by his desire to be the hero of the tales he loves so much and believes the tag line that goes with the stories that proclaim their veracity. Gideon is very much a Victorian era fiction geek and would be well at home in a conversation debating the merits of one hero over another like many that happen in comic shops and specialty book store these days. This is the story of him learning that your heroes can be both much less and much more then you think; its a familiar tale but David's version is quite well told.
In terms of temporal cameos there are a few but one of the other major characters happens to be theatre reviewer of the era and writer Bram Stoker. Gideon meets this older fellow by chance and they get pulled into each others stories; Stoker is in the small town searching for writing inspiration and think he finds it in this earnest young man. Together they begin to investigate the mysteries cropping up in Sandsend, Yorkshire. Though older and perhaps should be wiser then Smith, Bram too seems a man adrift in life when we meet him, he's a husband and father distant from his family and possessed of a desire to be something more then what he is at the moment. Some of the elements of the story that surrounds him could be guessed at but the way things play out are far too much wry humerous fun and lead to more adventures to ruin for people who have yet to get the book. The other players and viewpoints include a crusty brash reporter, a mysterious mechanical Girl, and variations on the characters mentioned in the tales of the aformentioned Captain Trigger stories not to forget people reminiscent of Indiana Jones's first adventure.
David in the creation of this world seems to have let his imagination fly. The setting if familiar in that there are the dirigibles, steam vehicles and odd clockworks that are e fare of steampunk novels. The British Empire is preeminent among the mperial powers but the way that he has remixed them and played with details is pure joy to discover in the action and exploration that happens throughout London. The novel plays a lot like an adventure travelogue in the Victorian era; we get races through the London streets and skies, air travels across Europe and well beyond that would be telling. There is action and bloodshed a plenty along the way and since most of the characters are motivated by the need for justice otherwise known as revenge its no surprise that violence is the outcome. If you read the above lined tales you can get a feel for the way David handles it and its very pulp fiction in my opinion. He does not linger on details but on the outcomes and when the chips finally fall, though there is plenty of questions and territory to explore, this tale feels satisfyingly concluded.
Gideon Smith over the corse of the story goes from being naive and hero worshiping fan to someone who can step up and be the hero he admires. The undertone of the novel to me explored the nature of having a heroic figure that you pin your hopes to and looked at the realities of being exposed to the person you'd imagined the hero to be in reality. Exposure to the world away from Sandend change Gideon from his meeting the man Bram Stoker who aids Gideon for his own ends, his faithful encounter with the Mechanical Girl who's situation and struggles motivate him to act, the gruf profane journalist Bent who offers his aid for price - a story to his meeting with the idols of the penny blood stories Captain Lucian Trigger, Rowena the Belle of the Airways and the rogueish American antihero to name just a few. Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a book hat will thrill and surprise people who check it out; it should have wider appeal then books locked into a subgenre, Davdi succeded to write a truly ripping yarn that leaves you satisfies and wanting another look at this alternate history pulp adventure.