The Map of Unknown Things #1
Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History
Angry Robot; January 5, 2018
345 pages (PB)
2.5 / 5 ✪
Beware Possible Spoilers for the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire Trilogy!
The Queen of All Crows serves as my introduction to Rod Duncan, and the world of the Gas-Lit Empire. While the Fall of the Gas-Lit trilogy has been on my TBR for years, I recently came across a copy of All Crows and couldn’t resist getting it. This book begins the Map of Unknown Things trilogy, which I’ve been assured anyone can read, with or without prior knowledge of the world.
Following the events of the Gas-Lit trilogy (I imagine, at least), Elizabeth Barnabus resides in the relative safety of Victorian-Era London, circa 2012. Here, she has hollowed out a life for herself. She has a ward—the boy Tinker, vaguely introduced—a secret lover, John Farthing, member of the all-controlling Patent Office. Everything is set off when Elizabeth’s best friend, Julia, sets off for America to start life anew.
She never makes it.
Airships have been going down in the Atlantic for some time, with Julia’s just another victim of the unknown assailants. And Elizabeth, being the person that she is, heads out to investigate.
Part I of All Crows alternates chapters between the past and the present: the former detailing Elizabeth’s time in London, before setting off, the latter her time at sea, hunting for her friend. Much like much of human societal history, women weren’t treated as regular folk. Which is ridiculous, but. Their ability and demeanor are questioned. They aren’t allowed to sail. They must dress a certain way, act a certain way, and offer their opinion only when asked (which isn’t a given). Given this stigma, Elizabeth Barnabus is forced to dress as a man. And an ugly one, at that. This allows her to move unseen in the world of men, navigating the Atlantic until she finds her friend, or meets her end.
So, first thing: while it wasn’t vital to read the original trilogy first, I feel like it would’ve been really, really helpful. Indeed, would’ve made the read more enjoyable. Without doing so, several of the characters seemed hollow, unexplained—at least at first. Tinker eventually progresses, though neither Farthing nor Julia join him. Even Elizabeth herself isn’t fleshed out until… well, I didn’t feel that she ever fully was. We know snippets of her history, but little of what’s gone on before, which has certainly shaped her as a character.
Elizabeth Barnabus as an experience impresses. A strong female lead, her story really should’ve been the focus. Actually, it probably IS the focus of the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. I was so into her story that I want to go back and explore what the original trilogy has to offer. Sadly, it’s a focus that never really takes point in All Crows, where—while she is the lead—Elizabeth plays second fiddle to the main plot.
The main story of All Crows provides an ample amount of mystery and intrigue, and when coupled with Elizabeth’s secret identity, serves as an entertaining tale. Until the mystery is blown. When this happens, a subplot regarding the assailants and their lives is introduced. Another tale of lies, intrigue and… meh. This one I never connected with. And though I can follow the obvious parallels, I’m still not sure why Elizabeth connects with it, either. It’s an adequate sort, I’ll grant. But that’s about the height of it. And when the search for Julia near its completion—it pretty much pushes this subplot to the side for a bit before then hurriedly finishing it in an unsatisfying, out of character way.
The world building is pretty solid, but once again it seems like it’d’ve been better if only you read the original trilogy. While the occasional concept or history was adequately explained, I felt like these were few and far between, so much so that the world began to take the shape of a gigantic grey area populated by a few dazzling scenes.
While an intricate and immersive read at times, Queen of All Crows really didn’t inspire me. Elizabeth is a highly interesting character that plays second to a story that comes and goes, before being hurriedly completed. The subplot was a disappointment, one that never really felt important. I feel that fans of the original Gas-Lit books may love this further adventure within the world, but new readers (like me) probably won’t connect with unfleshed characters and a lacking story that really never provided. It’s a 50/50 book, so dunno if I’d recommend it for new readers. But I’m leaning towards not.
The Map of Unknown Things continues with The Outlaw and the Upstart King.