Pardon me if I have a bit of trouble containing my excitement, but I spent the past week devouring one of the most deliriously fun series I’ve read in a very long time, and reserved praise is not an option.
How best to describe Jonathan Green’s Pax Britannia series, from Abaddon Books? Imagine if you entered every single awesome element of steampunk, Victoriana, pulp sci-fi, spy-fy, mystery, and horror, comic books, and pop culture in general into a Babbage Machine and asked it to give you a series of stories that would encapsulate the best of all of these genres into one grand whole. The end result might be strikingly similar to Pax Britannia, although that would likely miss out on the human touch that makes these novels so remarkable. It’s rare that a narrative and its archetypal characters can work as both meticulous pastiche and a thrilling story with flesh and blood protagonists in its own right, and yet Jonathan Green accomplishes this seemingly effortlessly, producing a definitive work of steampunk that tongue-in-cheekily revels in all of the (and several other) genre’s most beloved excesses even while creating genuine drama and suspense that allows the series to transcend mere postmodern homage.
Unlike the majority of steampunk novels, the Pax Britannia series is actually set in the modern day, or technically just a bit over a decade ago, in the late 1990s. These aren’t the 1990s that we know, however, but those of an alternate universe in which steam technology–along with the British Empire–continued to thrive into the end of the 20th century, in no small part due to the fact that Queen Victoria never died, instead having been kept alive by monstrous technology that has gradually transformed her more into undead machine than monarch.
Elements of our world and history do appear from time to time but more often than not, the society and zeitgeist of this reality spring straight out of the history and literature of the Victorian era. The great Victorian sci-fi, mystery, and horror authors, such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson are known in this universe, except their writing wasn’t mere fiction. Along with typical steampunk technology such as dirigibles, automatons, and the like, this world actually has underwater cities housed under protective bubbles, and luxury liners that double as submarines to reach them; space travel (along with colonies on the moon and other planets) made possible by Wells’ gravity-defying element, cavorite; dinosaurs that were discovered still existing in hidden places on Earth; weird science such as Frankenstein monsters, bizarre chimeras, hybrids, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (after all, both stories were written to be pseudo-documentations of actual events).
Significantly, however, although it features all of the breathless, gee-whizz gadgetry juxtaposed with costume drama atmosphere that one would expect from steampunk, along with the monsters that one would find in the horror writing of the time, the series also doesn’t shy away from the grimmer elements of the Victorian era: the poverty, the pollution, the filth, the brutal class divide, the social injustice.
In fact, the “modern day” of Pax Britannia is plagued by many of the issues of the time, as well as of today. Countless countries are starving while the supremely wealthy Magna Britannia thrives (at least on the surface). Even other areas of what we would call the United Kingdom outside of London are practically dying. Meanwhile, London itself is choking on the ever-present smog being generated by its steam technology, which is threatening the entire planet’s ecosystem (one of the reasons that off-world colonies are so crucial), London’s poor are just as bad off as the poor of other places, and more than a few people feel that the world’s greatest power has lost its way–perpetually trapped in an outdated culture and way of life that should have evolved years ago. They feel that the world has become stagnant, frozen in time, like Victoria herself/itself, and a number of radical groups and shadowy conspirators, made up of politicians, weird scientists, and more consider it their duty to force this change upon the world in order to save it. In other words, evolve or die. This conflict between progress and maintaining the status quo is a central driving force of the series, as well as the morality of whether change at any cost to human life is any less evil than allowing the poisonous empire to continue as it has been for hundreds of years.
Green uses this as a perfect backdrop for the pulp-infused adventures of his dashing, dandy gentleman hero, Ulysses Quicksilver, an agent of the crown, who along with his faithful, ever-present manservant, Nimrod, faces down threats against the country, whether they be human, robotic, supernatural, animal, or the product of genetic experimentation by mad scientists. Quicksilver is James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Oscar Wilde rolled into one–a debonair hero who is as physically fit as he is brilliant and witty as he is concerned about maintaining a fashionable appearance (meanwhile, Nimrod is basically Bruce Wayne’s Alfred crossed with Jeeves, and with the fighting skills of a master). And Green certainly puts him through the wringer over the course of the series, forcing him to face horrors the likes of which his training never originally prepared him for. People surrounding him may see a frivolous fop but in many ways, this is a facade that he meticulously maintains in order to have some grasp of control over his life, as illusory as that sense of control might be. The key to Quicksilver’s success is his bravado, which he refuses to relinquish even when facing odds that are insurmountable-verging-on-impossible. And when he is at his lowest and most fragile (and, admirably, Green does allow that to occur, rather than keeping his hero always unflappable), he has Nimrod to help patch him back together.