Jani And The Greater Game by Eric Brown (book review).

January 18, 2015 | By | Reply More

Eric Brown is a prolific British novelist, most of whose books fall firmly within the category of Science Fiction. He does, however, write in genres other than SF, having recently had a couple of crime novels published. It was, nonetheless, still a surprise to find out that his latest book, ‘Jani And The Greater Game’, takes him into the realms of steampunk, a genre that I don’t believe he has worked in before.

JaniAndTheGreaterGame

The story takes place in an alternate history version of the early decades of the twentieth century and follows the adventures of Janisha Chatterjee, the eighteen year-old daughter of the Indian Minister for Internal Security. Jani has been living in England, the birthplace of her late mother, for the last ten years, first at private school and most recently at Cambridge University where she has just started a degree in medicine. She is returning to India for the first time in five years to see her father, who is terminally ill with cancer. However, Jani’s life of privilege changes forever when the passenger airship she is aboard is shot down by the Russians over the Himalayas.

Miraculously, Jani escapes the crash with only minor injuries but, while she is searching the wreckage for other survivors, she finds a humanoid alien called Jelch, a prisoner of the British who was being taken to Delhi for interrogation. Jelch tells her that he and another of his species travelled to Earth to warn the human race of dangers to come. Unfortunately, no-one believed them. Instead, they were both arrested, interrogated and tortured by the British and the Russians. In return for her help, Jelch gives Jani a mysterious coin covered in alien writing then runs off, telling her that another airship is approaching. When it arrives, it turns out to be the ship that brought them down. Russian troops appear and start shooting any survivors they find. Jani tries to hide but is found. Certain death is averted at the last moment only by the reappearance of Jelch, who single-handedly kills the three Russian soldiers who are threatening Jani, then does the same to every other Russian soldier on the ground before fleeing again.

A rescue party finally appears and, in due course, Jani arrives in Delhi and is reunited with her father. He dies the following day but not before confirming to her that Jelch is indeed an alien being not from Earth. Bereft at the loss of her father, Jani decides to re-acquaint herself with the sights and sounds of Delhi without a chaperone. Unfortunately, for her, several parties are now searching for the missing Jelch and his alien coin and they all seem to be aware of that Jani met him in the airship wreckage. She finds herself being pursued first through Delhi and then across India by the Russians, the British and a local Indian demagogue called Durga Das.

Thankfully, Jani’s childhood friend Anand now works for Mr. Clockwork, Delhi’s foremost inventor of steam-powered mechanical marvels. With Anand’s help, escape appears possible and Jani’s plight suddenly seems less bleak. Can she keep one step ahead of her pursuers? Even if she can, where should she go and what is she supposed to do with the coin given to her by Jelch?

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. As usual, Brown’s primary interest is in his characters. Janisha Chatterjee is an engaging protagonist combining strength of will and a clear moral compass with an emotional vulnerability that makes you care deeply what happens to her. In addition, her mixed race heritage allows her to understand and critique the best and worst of what the British Empire has to offer India even if her privileged upbringing, spent mostly in England, means that she has very limited knowledge of the lives of the average Indian. By way of contrast, local demagogue Durga Das is portrayed as a devious but complex character who wants the British out of his homeland and is willing to murder people to achieve this, yet he bridles when one of his lackeys suggests torturing Anand, insisting that none of his enemies should be made to suffer more than is absolutely necessary.

The story also includes a wonderful set of exchanges between Lieutenant Archie Littlebody, a thoughtful and intelligent British soldier sent on Jani’s trail, and his superior officer Colonel Smethers, a borderline psychotic racist who bullies every Indian unfortunate enough to come into contact with him. Brown uses their relationship to critique British imperial rule in India with great skill.

In addition to the strength of the characters, the novel also benefits from a plot with more twists and turns than a country lane, a setting that is brought to life with deft, economical touches of description and a wonderful suite of steampunk machines, including Mel, the mechanical elephant, which is illustrated so beautifully in Dominic Harman’s gorgeous cover art.

Eric Brown has a well-deserved reputation for writing fast-paced, character-driven adventure stories. Against that yardstick, ‘Jani And The Greater Game’ delivers in spades. Steampunk seems to be a natural fit for Brown’s type of storytelling and he has here managed to produce a worthy successor to the Victorian yarns of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

Patrick Mahon

January 2015

(pub: Solaris/Rebellion. 315 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78108-204-1)

check out websites: www.solarisbooks.com and www.ericbrown.co.uk

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Category: Books, Steampunk

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