Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris are the author team behind the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, which began with PHOENIX RISING (2011; Harper Voyager) and continues in THE JANUS AFFAIR (2012).
The series has its own Web site (which I learned about last year through my exposure to PJ Schnyder’s “A Swan in Siam" steampunk romance short). The more I delved into the two books, the more I wondered if they were flying under the radar of science fiction romance readers.
I would characterize the series as steampunk with romantic elements. In PHOENIX RISING, Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences agents Wellington Books and Eliza D. Braun become partners for the first time—very reluctantly, I might add—and the story focuses largely on the push-pull tension of their professional relationship. There are hints of attraction, but first the partners must work through their wildly different approaches to their jobs.
The series has much to offer SFR fans, so I compiled a short list of non-spoiler tags for you:
* The stories are a fusion of mystery, steampunk, and action-adventure. There are paranormal elements, but their role is on the atmospheric side (to me).
* Subverted gender roles: Books is the introverted/scientifically inclined partner while Braun handles the weapons and acts as the muscle.
* The steampunk elements are plentiful but also accessible.
* Light sexual tension; subtle romantic elements. The slow-build relationship is very much opposites attract, like Mulder and Scully from THE X-FILES.
* Tone wise, the stories have a pulpy, humorous, and larger-than-life style.
*There’s lots and lots of witty banter. In fact, the higher the danger quotient, the more frequent the quips.
* In general, the POV alternates between Books and Braun. At times the prose shifts from deep third to omniscient (a stylistic choice, perhaps?), but if you read the prose and envision it as a movie at the same time, it can work on that level. In fact, someone really ought to make this series into a film or television show.
With all the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences has going on, I decided to invite the authors aboard so we could learn more about the series.
To get you acquainted with their work, here’s the blurb for PHOENIX RISING:
Evil is most assuredly afoot—and Britain’s fate rests in the hands of an alluring renegade . . . and a librarian.
These are dark days indeed in Victoria’s England. Londoners are vanishing, then reappearing, washing up as corpses on the banks of the Thames, drained of blood and bone. Yet the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences—the Crown’s clandestine organization whose bailiwick is the strange and unsettling—will not allow its agents to investigate. Fearless and exceedingly lovely Eliza D. Braun, however, with her bulletproof corset and a disturbing fondness for dynamite, refuses to let the matter rest . . . and she’s prepared to drag her timorous new partner, Wellington Books, along with her into the perilous fray.
For a malevolent brotherhood is operating in the deepening London shadows, intent upon the enslavement of all Britons. And Books and Braun—he with his encyclopedic brain and she with her remarkable devices—must get to the twisted roots of a most nefarious plot . . . or see England fall to the Phoenix!
And now for my interview with Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris!
The Galaxy Express: What sparked the idea for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences?
Pip Ballantine: It was actually on a long plane flight from Las Vegas that we began to talk to about this idea Tee had for a story set in the modern day about an organization investigating the strange and the unusual. I (Pip) wanted to podcast a novel for pay, so I suggested we do a project as a spin off of that idea. That project came to be the first novel, Phoenix Rising.
TGE: Describe three basic elements that readers should know about this world going in.
PB: It is like our history but it is not. You will see things you are familiar with, but you will also find the fantastical that will make you think what if. Oh, and it is peopled with lots of fun characters that will hopefully make you laugh, gasp and be very intrigued with.
TM: If you are a fan of the BBC classic The Avengers or the classic Bruce Willis-Cybil Sheppard comedy Moonlighting, you should expect some of that back-and-forth dialog with Books and Braun. Yes, there is Victorian history in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences but keep in mind this is steampunk so accuracy is thrown out of the window. So kick back and have fun. Finally, this is a fun romp; but we’re not afraid to go dark. You’ll see we turn a corner. Be ready.
TGE: Books & Braun are the headlining duo of your stories, which began with Phoenix Rising. What kind of adventures can readers expect from them?
PB: If Wellington Books had his way there would be no adventures…but nonetheless that is what he gets. In the first book there are carriage chases, opera fights, nefarious secret societies, and lots of explosions. There are romances, mysteries, and the odd conspiracy or two. You’ll be whisked all over London, from the highest society to the lowest gutter. And in our short stories and third installment, we will be going around the world because it’s the British Empire, after all.
PB: While in each book there is a central mystery and villain to uncover, there is indeed a grander plan going on in the background. For example, in Phoenix Rising along with figuring out the Rag and Bone Murders, a series of intriguing villains have set themselves against Wellington and Eliza—including a dastardly female assassin. The Janus Affair continues this arc and builds on it but in Dawn’s Early Light (the third book) we will be putting all the cards on the table. We have kicked around the foundations for Book Four, and we’re ready to rock and roll with it.
TGe: On a scale of 1-10, rate the steampunk component of your books.
PB: In the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences there is quite a bit of history, but the steampunk component is an 8. The Ministry has more than its far share of nifty technological gadgets, and as they are secret agents the tech goes pretty far. What mattered to us most was to make sure that the steampunk was integrated into the world and not just set dressing.
TGE: There’s an attraction simmering between Books & Braun. Do you think their relationship has appeal for romance readers?
PB: Definitely. Eliza and Wellington butt heads in the first book, but gradually begin to realize that they need each other. Along the way they also become rather attracted to each other. Sparks tend to fly between them. A few issues crop up between them, but they are not immune to each other’s charms. We hope the readers will travel along with us in the future books to find out how that develops. There is definitely a long game in the series
TGE: The book covers are fabulous. Who created them? Have you had input in the cover design?
PB: We were pleasantly surprised when asked by Harper Voyager for input on both covers. The artist’s name is Dominick Finelle, and he gave us two stunning covers. We just recently got a touch of vindication for the love we’ve nurtured over our covers when author Jim C. Hines parodied our cover. We even returned the volley, earning us a lot of new traffic. We have a lot to thank Dominick for with these two covers.
TGE: You also produce TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES, collections of short stories by a variety of authors based in the MOPO universe. Tell us about that project.
PB: It started as a fun podcast to promote the first novel, but has definitely taken on a life of its own. We have invited friends and colleagues to write short stories set in our world. It’s been an exciting experience, because we’ve traveled all over the globe with Ministry Agents. We give the stories away as free podcasts, but for those who prefer text based stories, we also sell them as digital short stories.
TGE: How long have you been involved in steampunk culture? What are some of your favorite steampunk interests?
PB: The two of us have always loved history, and dressing up in various history periods. We jumped into the steampunk culture headlong in 2010 as we attended more and more steampunk conventions. It’s an exciting time for the genre, and we’re having a terrific time enjoying makers and talent in this always-growing genre.
TGE: Please describe a few of your favorite steampunk books, films, and/or television shows.
PB: I really enjoy Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books, I adore Boneshaker. As for films…well there are not so many to chose from, but I do love The Prestige. David Bowie as Tesla—you can’t go wrong with that!
TM: I grew up always wanting to catch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Those films still rock. I’ve been enjoying the work of The League of STEAM on the web, and the works of K.W. Jeter and Phil and Kaja Foglio — you can’t go wrong.
|Image source: LeagueofSteam.com|
TGE: What’s next for Books & Braun?
PB: The third book will hopefully be out this year, or very early in 2014. We also have a roleplaying game and a larger anthology project in the works for this year. The podcast is still also still in production, so the Ministry is powering on.
TGE: Where can readers find you?
Ms. Ballantine and Mr. Morris, thanks so much for your time, and for your art.
THE JANUS AFFAIR
Evildoers beware Retribution is at hand, thanks to Britain's best-kept secret agents.
Certainly no strangers to peculiar occurrences, agents Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are nonetheless stunned to observe a fellow passenger aboard Britain's latest hypersteam train suddenly vanish in a dazzling bolt of lightning. They soon discover this is not the only such disappearance . . . with each case going inexplicably unexamined by the Crown.
The fate of England is once again in the hands of an ingenious archivist paired with a beautiful, fearless lady of adventure. And though their foe be fiendishly clever, so then is Mr. Books . . . and Miss Braun still has a number of useful and unusual devices hidden beneath her petticoats.