The Custodian of Marvels
by Robert Duncan
TL;DR: The Custodian of Marvels is alternate history done right.
The basic setup: after the Napoleonic War, it was decided that technology, unleashed and unconstrained, had too much potential for destruction. The International Patent Office was constructed to perform the
"Separation of seemly science from that which is unseemly, through the granting or withholding of licenses to produce and sell technology."
Almost two centuries on, the Patent Office still has a stranglehold on technology, its mission to "confiscate and destroy the unseemly" effectively keeping the culture, technology, and even the societal mores of the Gaslit Empire at a standstill. In the best of alternate history, everything is different from our present, and the Gaslit Empire captures that to a tee. Rather than being relegated to a derogatory adjective for the technologically backward, Ned Ludd became the "father of the Anglo-Scottish Republic," which broke away from the still-monarchistic remainder of England and Wales. It's steampunk in the best way--not an unimaginative and under-researched "Victorian London but with steam," but a reimagined twentieth century where computers and their ilk were strangled in infancy. I adored it. Even more unusually, the distinctions from our reality extend to the perspectives of the characters. Their morality doesn't necessarily match the reader's. Although the reader, with presumed hindsight, can see the harm that the Patent Office has done, most of the characters are far more fearful of the unknown and feel that the Patent Office is "All that stands between us and the chaos that lies beyond the Gas-Lit Empire."
And speaking of the cast, I quite liked them. The main character, Elizabeth, makes for a sympathetic narrator, and the rest of the crew is exactly the band of misfits that makes a heist story entertaining. Did I mention that it's a heist story? I love heists. Admittedly, the plot has its share of refrigerator logic and plot-driven character stupidity, but hey, it's a heist. Did I mention I love heists?(show spoiler)
The Custodian of Marvels is the third in the series, and while I'm definitely planning to look up some of the earlier volumes, I can assert that Custodian was utterly an enjoyable entrance to the series. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of missing the backstory was the ongoing romantic tensions between Elizabeth and a patent officer; in this book, he's utterly irritating, so it's hard to sympathise with her interest.
As one might expect, the story is full of twists, including one at the end that I absolutely loved. Each chapter also begins with a quote from The Bullet-Catcher's Handbook, which is basically a conjuror's collection of aphorisms. A few of my favourites:
"If the catcher of the bullet chooses the moment, they call it conjuring. If the shooter chooses the moment, it is called murder."
"There was once a line marked out by God through which were divided heaven and hell. The devil created lawyers to make amends. They argued the thickness of that line until there was room within it for all the sins of men to fit."
If you're looking for a truly entertaining alternate history with a heist, secret passages, and sinister governmental officials, Custodian of Marvels is definitely worth a look. Count me in for the sequel--and for the first books, too.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~