Tue
Jul 10 2012 3:30pm

Wherein a Book is Inconsistent: The Janus Affair

The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, is the second novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Series. It follows the eponymous Ministry, which is a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Women” style Imperial British governmental agency. More specifically, we’re concerned with the continuing exploits of Wellington Books, the Ministry’s very English head archivist, and Eliza Braun, New Zealander and still-stewing-about-being-demoted ex-field agent (now archiving assistant). Books and Braun discover that women connected with the suffragist movement have been disappearing in very mysterious circumstances, and that the Ministry has been burying the cases. Despite explicit instructions to stay out of it, their shared sense of duty and Braun’s personal connection to the movement draw them into a dangerous, high-stakes investigation. The Janus Affair has fun techy bits, a sense of liveliness, and many relatively appealing characters.

Unfortunately, these strengths are hampered by some messy writing. An amazing steam-powered tin-ear is responsible for gems like:

“I mean, who raises our children, cooks our meals, and assures that house and home remains tidy and in order?” [Wellington] went on. “It is, most certainly, not a man’s job, now is it?” [p. 23]

Almost everything Wellington Books says is bloated. Books’ Very Correct manner of speech (overly burdened with tag-questions, phatic expression, and unnecessary commas) isn’t just clumsy. It’s a product of adding in more words wherever possible, because that’s what Victorians sound like or something. But the resulting dialogue and prose don’t sound of the period so much as distorted.

The Victorians are, of course, often thought of as garrulous writers. When people try to Do Victoriana the parody/homage can sometimes consist of effusive nonsense. However the past is another country, and its modes of expression, like another language, do have logic and internal cohesion. There’s a rhythm to Victorian sentences. The prose is effective, if not economic. If you’re going to write fiction set in another time period, especially in a genre like steampunk, which so fetishizes the world it’s set in, attention to language is vital.

Admittedly, because we’re working with an alternate universe, elements of the language will change due to the introduction of anachronistic technology (steam-powered androids probably don’t show up much in texts from 1892) and the social fallout from that. But such changes should follow the logic of that universe’s alternate causality. On this note, Ben Schmidt, a history grad student at Princeton, did an excellent job setting up an algorithm to track anachronistic words, word-meanings and word-order in Downton Abbey. When the code he used becomes more widely and easily available, I think it’ll make an exciting toy and tool for writers and interested readers of historical fiction.

It’s not just the language at issue—the novel’s content is also uneven. Steampunk sometimes glorifies empirical, Imperial achievement without examining the gender, class, race and colonialism inequalities that underlie those achievements (and that those triumphs are, to a degree, predicated on). I appreciate that The Janus Affair makes a good-faith effort to deal with some of those hot-button issues. Suffrage is key to the plot, and Kate Sheppard stands out as a well-written leader of that cause. Class issues are flagged up at points. Discussions of race and colonialism are threaded through the entirety of the plot. Many of the Ministry’s competent agents aren’t English. Some aren’t white, and some aren’t men. The first character we meet is a lesbian, and we learn that about her casually and naturally.

Unfortunately, the novel handles the issues it raises rather poorly. Easy first-wave feminist truths are dutifully trotted out and agreed to. Repeatedly. I got rather tired of the text cooing about Eliza’s wild and wacky colonial ways.

Eliza’s fellow agent and friend Ihita is an Indian woman. She wants to cook Eliza her mother’s homey rogan josh, yet she also says she grew up in a raj’s place. How do these elements of her life coexist? Were her family really laid-back nobles, or stewards of some sort? This needs more explanation in order to have any chance of not sounding like disparate well-known Indian stereotypes have been arbitrarily assigned to this character. What women of color do in the novel and what happens to them takes its treatment of racial diversity from well-intentioned to awkward.

The Janus Affair gives us some decent inventions and images, and some characters that are relatively fun. But Ballantine and Morris’s language choices were often jarring for me as a reader and didn’t evoke the feel of the period. The novel seemed determined to talk about some social justice issues, and then handled those issues so weirdly that I wish it hadn’t tried at all. The Janus Affair feels complacent, and not as progressive as it might like to be. The ending makes little sense, and ultimately doesn’t cohere with the whole of the novel well enough to be very interesting.

I’d like to discuss the ending at length, and to talk about the novel more generally. But those are conversations best had with people who’ve read it—and I’d really like to have some in the comments.


Erin Horáková is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.

7 comments
RobinM
1. RobinM
I enjoyed the first book. It started with a jail break so I figured it would be fun . I haven't started the second book yet ;I just picked it up this weekend. Give me a few days and I'll let you know what I think of the ending.
RobinM
2. AndieN
On the basis of a similar response to the first book, your comments on this one resonate. But regarding logic, internal cohesion, language etc I would say that these comments apply to much of the steampunk I've read, where there are a few Victorian trappings but really, we're just reading a book with early 21st century sensibilities. This grates on me after a while, but given the popularity of the genre I'd say most readers are getting exactly what they want, a bit of lightweight fun & no need to move the gray matter out of neutral.
Erin Horakova
3. ErinHoráková
@AndieN

Nick Harkaway says some great things about the genre's potential here: http://www.nickharkaway.com/2012/06/regarding-steampunk/ . Essentially I don't think it needs written off because of what it is? I've often seen it done lazily, but then, that's true of a lot of genres. And I'm not even necessarily against the (to an extent unavoidable) '21st century novel stuck in another time period' thing. Georgette Heyer novels inevitably ported more contemporary heroines into regency novels, a la "The Grand Sophy", but that didn't really decrease their easy charm.

Lightweight fun would be fine, but the book is really too clunky to achieve escape velocity and get there? 'Lightweight fun' is a fine thing to write towards, but that too has a lot of craft going into it, and doesn't just happen by accident. When a book's really shoddy in its mechanics and storytelling, it just isn't a pleasant pure-leisure-read.
RobinM
5. jmd
I just picked up these 2 last night! Will probably get to them over the weekend and see - I heard some of the same stuff about the Parasol books and I loved those so hopefully I won't be disappointed.
RobinM
6. ces
I read these 2 books a couple of weeks ago. Lightweight fun is exactly what they are, and exactly what I knew they would be, so I wasn't disappointed. and since they're lightweight fun, I don't bother with their supposed comments on society, which are all this century's feelings, and not those feelings of people living in the time of the novel necessarily.
Erin Horakova
7. ErinHoráková
@ces

I think it's important that a fun genre book be well-crafted, or it just isn't fun. It's not like 'Classic Literary Fiction' demonstrates a certain level of technical proficiency, and if a book's not quite on that level, it /becomes/ good pulp. Good pulp has its own demands--like strong, engrossing plotting, characters who grab you and make you want to know more about them and what happens to them, and engaging prose. Writing light fun is like being a ballerina. For the reader/viewer to enjoy the illusion of ease and lightness, the ballerina's actually trained and worked hard. For me Janus Affair's clunky prose and strange resolution (What the actual crap is up with Ihita's dodgy religion thing? Why should we care?) weren't things I could shrug off because the novel was just Light Fun. They were the substance of the novel, and they made it an actively bad pulp read.

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