SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016


Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.

The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

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Pip Ballantine’s website | Tee Morris’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 29, 2012

Summary: Certainly no strangers to peculiar occurrences, agents Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are nonetheless stunned to observe a fellow passenger aboard Britain’s latest hypersteam train suddenly vanish in a dazzling bolt of lightning. They soon discover this is not the only such disappearance – every case inexplicably unexamined by the Crown.

Thoughts: After enjoying the high-action steampunk adventures of Books and Braun in Phoenix Rising, I figured it was about time to return and continue following along with the escapades of this dynamic duo. This time, however, they’re unofficially investigating the disappearances of women involved in the suffragist movement, women campaigning for voting rights and equality. (It scares me a little to discover, upon doing research on the movement, that women in Canada have had this right for less than a century. Which means that there are people alive today who were born before women had the right to vote in this country. And that saddens me.)

Ahem, that little interlude aside…

Eliza Braun has a personal connection to the suffragist movement and the disappearances occurring within its membership, but even if she didn’t, she’s the sort to follow that lead anyway. She’s not the type to see a mystery and just say, “Well, somebody else will take care of it.” I love that about her. She sees problems and starts working on the solutions. She’s a fantastic character to read about, strong-willed and feisty, always on the go, sure of herself even when others seem bent on forcing her into a mold for which she isn’t suited.

Wellington Books, on the other hand, is a character I love to follow because he’s studious and composed and yet there’s so much more to him than meets the eye. He’s the kind of person I’d have wanted to be when I grew up, had I read these books years and years ago. And put together with Eliza, they make such a great team with a great mix of personalities that you can’t help but want to read more about them. I adore the way they play off each other.

Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on here. While Books and Braun are investigating the disappearances of suffragists (off the record, of course, because they’ve been specifically told not to investigate at all), we also get insight into Eliza’s past and her romantic life, a conspiracy within the Ministry itself, a handful of intertwining subplots to keep things going even when the main plot has come to a bit of a standstill. None of the subplots feel forced or tacked on; they flow quite naturally, since really, when do any of us only have to deal with one thing at a time in life? Combine this with plenty of action and tension and you’ve got yourself a winning formula that keeps the entertainment coming.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of social commentary woven into the story, particularly about the place of women in society and the rights thereof. The Janus Affair is one of those books that can really get you thinking about the history of women struggling for equal rights to men, and the setbacks to the movement. Ballantine and Morris do not go into extreme detail about some of the punishments given to women imprisoned for their campaigns, but they do make mention of historically accurate issues such as being force-fed through tubes after going on hunger strikes. But even the milder refusals to concede that women are equal to men can rankle, especially when it comes from characters you expect better on. Even Books made a comment that seems relatively benign but still relegates women to the realm of the “gentle, lesser sex.” For those who haven’t done much research into the history of women’s right, who have only seen the fights occurring today, some of the content in this book might be a bit of an eye-opener, and a good jumping-off point for further personal research (if you’re anything like me, that is).

I don’t know why I waited so long between reading the first and the second books of this series. Typically I’m not much of a steampunk person, but honestly, the writing and the worldbuilding in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences books more than makes up for any ambivalence I may normally feel. Twice now I’ve been proven wrong, and that’s convinced me that I need to read the third book soon, in preparation for the release of book four. Even if you’re normally hesitant about steampunk novels, this is a very fun series you definitely ought to try.

Phoenix Rising, by Philippa Ballantine & Tee Morris

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Philippa’s website / Tee’s website
Publication date – April 11, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Evil is most assuredly afoot—and Britain’s fate rests in the hands of an alluring renegade . . . and a librarian.

These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing, washing up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences—the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and unsettling—will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest . . . and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Wellington Books, along with her into the perilous fray.

For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun—he with his encyclopedic brain and she with her remarkable devices—must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot . . . or see England fall to the Phoenix!

Thoughts: If the X-Files dealt more with artifacts and the truth behind urban legends, and existed in Victorian London, you might end up with something like the Minsitry of Peculiar Occurences, office of Her Majesty the Queen, handler of those strange events that need to be taken care of in the most discrete and sensitive way possible.

That is, until Eliza Braun comes in with gons a-blazing, with Wellington Books shaking his head in long-suffering acceptance.

Phoenix Rising is the first book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurences series, and what a fantastic beginning it was. We get thrown right into the action and intrigue, which doesn’t let up its pace for the whole of the book. Through a series of circumstances which doesn’t please either of the two main characters, Agents Books and Braun (lovely pun on the ideas of intelligence and brute strength, which they respectively embody) are thrown together, and among other things, find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrown the Queen and restore glory to the remains of the British Empire.

And that’s in their off-hours.

Ballantine and Morris bring together a wonderful blend of writing styles that show great creativity and talent for the little details of Victorian steampunk living, as well as a sense of humour that left me chuckling aloud at some moments (such as the chapter titles). It seems to me that this was a book that must have been as fun to write as it was for me to read, and the enjoyment shows in the tone of the novel; even during the tense and serious moments, there’s witty humour and sarcasm, and you tear through the pages wanting to know just what happens next.

Phoenix Rising is, ultimately, a fast-paced action-adventure that should not be missed. To fans of steampunk, or just fans of books with a good plot and sense of humour, this is one book that should definitely be gracing your bookshelves. And I don’t say that lightly; this is a book that was given to me for free as an e-ARC, and I know very well that I’m going to be buying a hard copy as soon as I can. It isn’t often that I do that, but in this case, I’ll make a very happy exception.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Author’s website
Publication date – September 15, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits? And what happens when said bio-terrorism forces humanity to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the world of his award-winning “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” in order to address these questions.

Thoughts: Where a good deal of futuristic settings are largely Western in origin, Bacigalupi breaks the mold and sets The Windup Girl in Thailand, exposing readers to a new culture, language, and set of experiences and values. My own compehension of Thai being limited to “sawatdi kha” and “mai pen rai,” I managed to expand my vocabulary a little simply by reading this book. It was, I must say, a welcome change from the white-bread, Western-dominated culture often expressed in futuristic settings.

Also interestingly, while still being science fiction this book takes us back a few steps in terms of technology. The level of power that we enjoy even today is gone. Computers are run by treadles. It’s borderline steampunk in that more things are made of cogs and gears, simply out of necessity. Humanity’s control over the world has been decimated by crop failures, advanced disease, climate change. The whole Monsanto controvery is ramped up to 11 here by corporations taking control of all things edible, cracking the genetic code to make it resistant to all the blights and ills that killed crops previously, and making all the crops sterile so that people have to rely on them for food. Nobody can just take a handful of apple seeds and some land and start their own orchard.

Almost makes you wish for the kind of future where we’re just off exploring alien planets, doesn’t it?

The titular character of the novel, Emiko the windup girl, is interesting in that she’s not the main character (though we do see a fair amount from her viewpoint, so it’s fair to say that she’s a protagonist) but more of a catalyst. Resigned at first to spending her life being degraded in the sex trade, Emiko’s journey of self-discovery and -realization not only free her from sexual slavery but also serves as the jumping-off point for an entire political revolution in Thailand. And they say one person can’t make a difference…

Bacigalupi’s chilling version of the future is one that could all too easily become reality, which is, of course, the most terrifying part of speculative fiction. The future he creates is not dystopian; it doesn’t pretend to be perfect or tightly-controlled, though it does bear a few of the earmarks of a dystopian society in the making. The skill at which the author weaves the fine detail of culture and speculative future together makes for a fascinating tapestry, one which I’m very pleased to have glimpsed, even if it comes with a disturbing ending. Bacigalupi is one author you simply can’t afford to miss.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Art of Steampunk, by Art Donovan

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 1, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Art of Steampunk seeks to celebrate the world of Steampunk: a world filled with beauty and innovation. A world in which steam power and technology intertwine to create machines that are not only functional and practical, but unique and striking.

Inside, you will find the fantastical and stunning artwork of Steampunk artists from around the world. The 17 artists featured on these pages, among the frontrunners of the Steampunk genre, have had their work displayed at an exhibition at The Museum of History of Science at the University of Oxford, UK and have attracted the media attention of BoingBoing, one of the world’s largest blogs. Their artwork consists of everything from clocks and watches to light fixtures and jewelry, but every piece demonstrates hours of painstaking work and devotion from its creator. You will find that the artists themselves are just as unique and colorful as their masterpieces. Fully embracing Steampunk ideology, many have adopted a Victorian alter ego—a mad scientist persona to match the complicated intricacies of their artwork.

The Art of Steampunk brings the vision of the Steampunk artist alive on the page, providing a unique insight into the captivating and dynamic world of a vastly underground genre.

Thoughts: I want to rate this book higher, I really do. There are so many things to like about this artbook, even once you move beyond the awesome idea that somebody did an artbook full of steampunk-inspired creations. The pictures are sharp and clear and quite beautiful, very inspirational. There’s good information about what steampunk is, its origins, why it’s gaining in popularity. The spotlights on various designers and their inspirations is really cool to see.

However (and there’s always a however), the copy of the book that I have is unfinished. I can understand why that is, since ARCs are not always the same as the finished product that hits the shelves, but I must say, it’s very hard to properly judge a book of visual art when half the art isn’t there. It’s filled with “picture goes here” notes and wonky formatting, and while I can try to ignore that and judge the book solely by what it does contain, I feel unsettled at giving the book a good review based on the fact that I had to ignore everything that was left out at the present time.

This book may be absolutely fantastic and revolutionize steampunk. It certainly will inform and entertain. But the ARC I received can’t properly convey that to me, and so I’m afraid my current review on this will remain a ackluster 3 out of 5 teacups until such time as I can see a finished and properly formatted copy.

And I have to admit, I’m pretty sad to say that.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley)