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.