Review: The Brass Giant by Brooke Johnson

brass giant by brooke johnsonFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook
Genre: steampunk
Series: Chroniker City #1
Length: 236 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Sometimes, even the most unlikely person can change the world

Seventeen-year-old Petra Wade, self-taught clockwork engineer, wants nothing more than to become a certified member of the Guild, an impossible dream for a lowly shop girl. Still, she refuses to give up, tinkering with any machine she can get her hands on, in between working and babysitting her foster siblings.

When Emmerich Goss—handsome, privileged, and newly recruited into the Guild—needs help designing a new clockwork system for a top-secret automaton, it seems Petra has finally found the opportunity she’s been waiting for. But if her involvement on the project is discovered, Emmerich will be marked for treason, and a far more dire fate would await Petra.

Working together in secret, they build the clockwork giant, but as the deadline for its completion nears, Petra discovers a sinister conspiracy from within the Guild council … and their automaton is just the beginning.

My Review:

The story outline is a familiar one, but the steampunk setting changes up some of the elements in some very interesting ways.

The plot is simple – underprivileged girl with big dreams meets highly privileged guy who will help her realize her dreams, but only if she helps him with super-secret project. This is a society where no one believes that women have intelligence or capability, so no one important will suspect she is really helping him. And of course they fall in love, and get caught, not necessarily in that order, and discover that the entire enterprise is much more serious, and much, much more dangerous, than they ever imagined.

Add in one final element – that underprivileged girl is an orphan, who turns out to be the heir of someone very, very special.

The steampunk setting gives us somewhat of a time and place reference. Chroniker City is definitely in England (that turns out to be important later) and it is a university town like Oxford or Cambridge. It isn’t London, because London is referred to as the capitol far away.

As steampunk, The Brass Giant is set in a quasi-Victorian era. There is a queen on the throne, and some of the historical worthies who have their portraits in the great hall are familiar, most notably Charles Babbage, inventor of the difference engine that evolved into computers in our world.

In the late Victorian era, England was playing what has been called “The Great Game”, an undercover war of diplomacy and proxies. In the Chroniker City world, their main rival seems to be France instead of Russia. But then again, Britain and France were perpetual rivals, from the point where Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled England in 1154 until well after the end of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. This was a conflict that never seemed to end.

Petra Wade is an orphan. She works as a shop girl in a pawnshop, and has learned how to be a fantastically good practical engineer with the help of the clockmaker who co-owns the shop. More than anything else, she wants to become a Guild Engineer, but that dream is forbidden. Guild Engineers must graduate from the University, and women are allowed in neither the University nor the Guild.

But Petra wants more than her life is mapped out to be. In spite of constant humiliation, she pursues her dream, even attempting to enter the University pretending to be male. All she faces is more and more embarrassment.

Until one young Guild Engineer, Emmerich Goss, discovers her talent. He needs her help to build a giant automaton. It’s a top secret project for the Guild, and he can’t enlist the aid of anyone they might suspect. The project is so secret that it is treason for Emmerich to reveal it. So of course he does.

Petra is good at clockworks, and Emmerich has invented a remote control mechanism. Together, they create a marvel. Only to discover that someone plans to use their great invention to start a war. And that Emmerich is forced to save Petra’s life by condemning her as a traitor.

They say you always hurt the one you love. Emmerich finds that true in more ways than one.

Escape Rating B: This is fun steampunk. While there is a romance between Petra and Emmerich, it is very sweet and almost innocent for most of the book. Petra falls in love for the first time because Emmerich both shares her interests and treats her as an equal. Emmerich loves her brilliance and her dedication. They are good together.

One of the plot twists in the story is that the orphaned Petra is the daughter of the city’s founder and first engineer, Lady Adelaide Chroniker. Which both makes Petra kind of a secret princess and puts the lie to the current Guild malarkey that only men can become engineers.

The way that Petra and Emmerich find each other, and all the political secrets they get stuck dealing with, along with Petra’s lineage, reminded me more than a bit of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. (The original version of The Brass Giant came out before Cinder was published, so this is an interesting coincidence that just shows that great plots can come out of the same seed with no knowledge of each other).

While I like Petra as the heroine a lot, she is also an example of the plucky heroine who always “knows” that she doesn’t belong in the place where tragedy has dropped her.

On that other hand, one of the characters who seemed a bit too bad to be true was her childhood friend Tolly. Although they were clearly playmates as little children, when they grew up Tolly became an overbearing bully who spouted the same filth and degradation about women as his father, and then blamed Petra for not choosing him over Emmerich. The scene where Tolly attempts to beat and rape Petra into compliance, blaming her for his thuggery, came out a bit too much like a modern-day Men’s Rights Activist. He’ll give Petra everything she ought to want if she’ll just give in, and he’ll beat her until she admits that he’s right and it’s all her fault he has to beat her.

The plot that Petra and Emmerich find themselves caught in the middle of is suitably politically underhanded. Someone wants to start a war, and is looking for plausible causes and convenient scapegoats. The way that Petra and Emmerich try to either escape the evil clutches or foil the plot has many hair-raising moments, but is ultimately unsuccessful in the main. The small victories give Petra and Emmerich (and their readers) hope for the future..

They will live to fight another day. I’m looking forward to reading their further adventures.

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