The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is a detective story with a difference, the biggest being that the detective himself, one Mr Barnabus, is not all he seems. So much so, that his real name is Elizabeth; she masquerades as her own brother, enabling her to get into places where a woman normally couldn’t, while still being able to use her talents to the full. There’s more to it than that, of course, all of which become apparent as the pages turn. Elizabeth’s reasons are woven so tightly into the plot, it would be a shame to give anything away here.

Rod Duncan’s first foray into fantasy with Angry Robot books (he’s an award-winning writer of three crime books, as well as a screenwriter) also adds in a dash of science-fiction, a hint of steampunk and a world rich in history. With so many ideas, it could have been a mess, but it’s been pared down into a tale narrated by Elizabeth, whose first-person point of view keeps the book grounded in the events affecting her life. They’ll doubtless have repercussions that will expand through Duncan’s ‘Gaslit Empire’, but letting the reader into Elizabeth’s head allows us to experience her misconceptions, her sorrow and guilt, without bombarding us with information about the world. It’s a tough line to walk, but Duncan does it well, meaning that the reader is given pieces of the jigsaw one at a time, fed in small amounts so as not to be overwhelmed.

Elizabeth is employed to find a missing aristocrat, which isn’t an easy task in Duncan’s divided England. Following the Luddite revolution, the land has been split into the puritan, progress-hating north and the decadent Royalist south and Elizabeth must work between the two. The border sits in Leicester, home of both Elizabeth and the author himself. You can tell; the locations in the book are like characters themselves, from vast looming edifices to darkened alleyways or open spaces, all give a sense of place that is familiar to the narrator, providing an atmosphere that engages from the opening lines.

Chapters begin with quotes from the legendary Bullet-Catcher’s Handbook, phrases that introduce not only the idea of illusion that pervades the novel, but also the author’s sly humour. Right from the outset there’s a strong feeling of misdirection – not least being Elizabeth masquerading as her brother – and the supposition that we too are being toyed with. Fortunately, Duncan’s a writer good enough to make this a pleasurable experience, keeping his reader’s attention without making them feel too manipulated. It’s subtly and well done, all the way through the book, right to a neat little twist at the end, a play on the title that had me nodding in approval rather than groaning in disbelief.

Those who inhabit Elizabeth’s world, be they friends or enemies or those who sit somewhere in between, are portrayed as more than part-players in her story. Each is vividly portrayed, lively enough to feel like the heroes of their own stories, all with distinctive voices; it’s always a good sign when you find yourself reading dialogue out loud, rolling your lips and tongue around the words. These characters are helping to drive the plot, rather than simply existing as the mechanics of it, and in some cases even the villains are sympathetic.

It’s fair to say I was smitten by The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter. Rod Duncan’s talent has combined inventive plot and characterisation to create a smart, amusing and fascinating tale that had me reading long into the night. Perhaps too long, as there were times when I was confused as to which persona Elizabeth was adopting.

My only disappointment is that the book’s not as long as I’d have liked, being just over 300 pages, and although we’re shown enough to paint a vivid picture of the world, I’m the greedy kind of reader who always wants more, so I did feel a little short-changed. Still, it’s left me eager for the sequel, Unseemly Silence, due out in February, although I’m somewhat saddened that The Fall of the Gaslit Empire will only be a two book series, a ‘duology’ as the publicity material calls it. Part of me wonders if two 300 page books (if the second is the same size) could have been combined into one volume, and the rest of me wants Mr Duncan to write even more about this wonderful character and the fascinating world she inhabits.


By Alister Davison

Alister rediscovered fantasy a few years ago when he was handed an old David Gemmell novel and remembered everything he loved about the genre. He's been stringing words together since he can remember, and - inspired by the likes of Scott Lynch and Joe Abecrombie - he set out to write a fantasy of his own. That story has expanded to a trilogy, part one of which is now setting out on the noble quest for representation. If not writing, reading or reviewing, Alister is probably watching TV while wondering what to read next.

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