Unnatural History by Jonathan Green (Book Review)
Steampunk isn’t exactly something that I’ve had much of an experience with. I can remember a few random examples here and there, nothing substantive. In fact, I think I’ve only read five steampunk novels to date, one in 2012, two in 2013 and two this year. Very, very slim pickings indeed here. As a genre, Steampunk doesn’t fascinate me all that much, not as much as straight-up science fiction (usually space opera at that) or epic fantasy, so that is perhaps one of the reasons why I haven’t explored the genre further and kind of what I am attempting to do with my “25 Series To Read in 2014” challenge. Then again, if more books are like Jonathan Green’s Unnatural History, then I’m willing to go further.
Unnatural History presents a steampunk-ified Victorian London where Queen Victoria is indeed still alive and is approaching her 160th birthday. The action centers on hero-adventurerer Ulysses Quicksilver of the Quicksilver who is noted the world over for his many adventures. His return after a particularly long adventure, one in which he was presumed dead, sparks off a new adventure entirely for him and he has to stop his nemesis Jago Kane from perpetrating yet another atrocity against the empire that he loves and is sworn to protect, Magna Britannia.
The premise of this novel is that Queen Victoria is approaching her 160th birthday and that she now rules over Magna Britannia, an alternate historical version of the British Empire that now stretches to the moon itself and covers most of the globe as well. Among the Queen’s many loyal servants is Ulysses Quicksilver, a hero and adventurer of great renown who works for the government. Presumed dead for a significant span of time during his last adventure, Ulysses returns unexpectedly and is almost immediately presented with an assignment to investigate the disappearance of an eminent professor of evolutionary biology and the murder of a nightwatchman at the professor’s place of work. Of course, it all spirals down into a conspiracy of massive proportions intended to bring down Magna Britannia and all that stands between Magna Britannia and its doom is Ulysses himself and his trusted butler Nimrod.
First of all, Unnatural History is an extremely fun and fast-paced action-adventure, the kind that I really do enjoy reading. Ulysses himself is quite the dashing hero, sometimes a cliche, but often a true well-realized character as well. He is smart and cunning, proficient in his line of work and also honest to a fault. Jonathan Green has characterized him well indeed, presenting just the kind of hero and protagonist that a story like this needed, in just the right amounts all the time. There are some moments where I was less than convinced by what Ulysses did, but such moments were rare indeed in the novel. His interactions with the people around him, especially Nimrod and his own younger brother Bartholomew, are what define him in the end and I liked seeing that side of him. He can be a real hard-ass at times but there’s definitely a softer side to him.
In short, there are a lot of sides to a character like Ulysses and he made this novel a most fun read.
The other characters, such as Nimrod and Bartholomew, or Genevieve Galapagos (daughter of the missing Professor) or Jago Kane (Ulysses’ nemesis of old) and Uriah Wormwood (a senior minister of Queen Victoria’s Magna Britannia) are all pretty decent as well. I loved Nimrod and Jago the best, although the latter was often a cliche, as was Genevieve, at least well into the first half of the book that is. There’s a right mix of characters here, whether the execution is well-handled or not, and I gotta say that they all do lighten up the story quite a bit, especially towards the final third by when Ulysses has been frustrated by his enemies again and again and has progressed little in his mission for Queen and country.
Divided into three acts, each act a significant section of the overall story, the novel really takes you for a ride with some of the more outrageous scenes. In act one in particular, we get to see Ulysses take on dinosaurs themselves. In this alternate world of Magna Britannia, the Lost World was indeed discovered and its treasures brought back to England, dinosaurs both small and mighty, among them a T-Rex. A Victorian-era hero fighting off against a T-Rex? Makes for some awesome visualizations I can tell you that. And I certainly agree with SFX’s desire that this novel needs to be made into a movie. As a movie, it certainly would have a lot to recommend itself, and considering that this entire series is so extensive, it is ripe as a franchise as well!
The steampunk-ness of the novel was at times hard to spot, but other times it was also quite apparent. Jonathan Green mixes a lot of things together here and it is interesting to see how inclusive he has made it all. We have Charles Babbage’s difference engines. The Challenger Enclosure at the London Zoo (reference to the Lost World!), and more such things. There is an Overground instead of the Underground in London. You’ve got car chases and dirigibles and what not. There’s a lot to take in here and Jonathan also takes the time to point out the more era-related stuff as well, especially with regards to the whole…. Britishness of the whole thing, I suppose.
That’s what really completes the novel I think.
Reading through Unnatural History, a surprisingly easy read at that, I was struck by the notion that this really is something that I can read more of and after finishing up the novel I certainly do want to keep on with the series. It joins a massive list of other series that I am in the middle of, but thankfully, Jonathan’s books are slighter in comparison to these others and that helps quite a bit in the end.
Unnatural History itself proved to be a far better novel than I had expected, considering my ambivalence towards Jonathan’s Warhammer work for Black Library, and that’s a good thing because he did manage to surprise me and made me a fan in the end. All for the best in the end!
Posted on August 12, 2014, in General and tagged 25 Series To Read In 2014, 25-in-14, Abaddon Books, Action-Adventure, Alternate History, Book Review, British Empire, British Steampunk, Dinosaurs, Historical Fiction, Jonathan Green, Magna Britannia, Novel Review, Pax Britannia, Rebellion Publishing, Review, Review Central, Steampunk, Steampunk Mystery, Ulysses Quicksilver, Unnatural History, Victorian England, Victorian London. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.