The Fugitive and The Vanishing Man by Rod Duncan
Angry Robot Books, ebook, £4.99
Reviewed by John C Adams
This is the final instalment of the Map of Unknown Things trilogy, as well as being the last in a total of six books about heroine Elizabeth Barnabus. It’s the first writing by Rod Duncan I’ve come across, so my initial thought was ‘Am I going to like the writing?’ followed very swiftly by ‘Having no idea about the past five books, is the plot going to be completely unintelligible to the newcomer?’
Elizabeth has been captured by the authorities in Newfoundland and stands accused of plotting to undermine the Gas-Lit Empire, which stretches all around the world. She faces hanging on a charge of murder. To save her accomplices Julia and Tinker she strikes a deal with the agents who hold her prisoner but then escapes with the aid of her lover after stealing money and some clothes from one of the agents to facilitate her disguise. She flees west to reunite with her estranged twin Edwin in the wilds of the Oregon Territory, where he is chief magician to its king. The kingdom of Oregon is poised to begin a war to free itself from the Gas-Lit Empire.
Elizabeth and Edwin were separated at a young age when their parents divorced. Their mother took Edwin across the Atlantic while their father remained in England with Elizabeth. Both twins have retained the skills of their parental training in the circus: they can deliver complex magic tricks to a captivated audience without revealing their secrets. These attributes enable Elizabeth to evade custody and keep running, while Edwin can stay just one step ahead of his rival for the king’s attention and trust. Both are in a precarious position, although with their reunion in Oregon their situation may improve.
If this sounds like a heady mix of genres, you’re not wrong. There’s a fair bit of steampunk going on in this mashup as well as straightup fantasy. Some of Elizabeth’s travel takes place in an airship, but the King of Oregon’s realm is pure sword and sorcery. I like a good mashup, and with considerations of gender identity at the centre of the novel I was frequently reminded of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin. The imminent acquisition of machine-gun technology by the king means that the odds are by no means as clearly stacked against the plucky Oregonites as they might initially appear.
I had three main reservations about this novel. The first was the small point that just as I started to care about Julia and Tinker they disappeared completely from the plot with quite peremptory swiftness as Elizabeth made her escape. Secondly, all the characters felt utterly English. This may be in part because the sword and sorcery part of the tale in Oregon gave it the feel of the Old World rather than the New, but even the part set in Newfoundland felt rather English. Lastly, the novel has really two plot strands, and once Edwin and Elizabeth are reunited and work as one for their common goal it really just has a single plot strand, which made the climax feel a tad simple.
Notwithstanding the above considerations, nothing materially detracted from my enjoyment of the novel because the writing and characterisation were excellent and the plot was very satisfying. I enjoyed it so much that I’m thinking of buying the earlier five books, too.
Full credit goes to the author for making the story entirely comprehensible without sacrificing the mystery of exactly what happened in the first five books. That’s a tricky line to tread, and he got the balance spot on.
The novel also explores being nonbinary. As someone who is nonbinary, I found the portrayal of this identity sympathetic and realistic. Both Edwin and Elizabeth, in their different ways, explore an identity that lies partway between the masculine and the feminine.
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