This world and characters have soo much potential, but the story spends so much wasted time on Elizabeth either planning or thinking. I also find the title a bit misleading as it does not really seem to appear to refer to Elizabeth but to a minor character who only has a few pages worth of story.
Elizabeth Barnabus was born into a circus family, but the evil Duke of Northampton ruined the family in order to force then 15 year old Elizabeth into indentured servitude with the help of a corrupt agent of the powerful Patent Office, which oversees all technology but also acts as something of an international police force. The Patent Office idea works well, although the corrupt government office as the major evil is not new. The thing I don’t quite see is, how an organization supposedly so bad has such a minor role in the story, and the only agent we see much of, John Farthing, actually seems to be a decent guy.
The setting is what makes this world potentially interesting. There’s the Kingdom, and the Republic. England has split in two, after an armistice in 1819, and the Republic in the North is a democracy, while the Kingdom seems more like “the rump of the older, larger Britain” under the control of the Council of Aristocrats. There’s also the Gas-Lit Empire is the jurisdiction of the Patent Office (basically it’s the known world aka Europe/ England), lasts for 200 years, and supposedly Elizabeth will have something to do with its fall. Elizabeth was born in the Kingdom, where she’s now a fugitive, and lives in the Republic, both as herself and as her brother who works as an information broken aka detective ala Sherlock Holmes.
Elizabeth has 2 main problems in the story: first, her beloved Bessie (a boat that doubles as her home) is about to be impounded unless she can come up with a lot of money, and second she is hired to find the missing brother of the Duchess of Bletchley, who may or may not have seen Elizabeth’s real face. While the 2 situations are intertwined, solving the mystery would earn the money, they are also kept quite separate. The first third of the book concerns mostly the first issue, the second half the second problem, and the final sixth brings everything together, when Elizabeth solves the mystery and manages to save Bessie with a little help from her student and friend Julia. The part of the story when Elizabeth sneaks off to another circus to find the missing brother is just plain slow. It seems to have nothing to do with mystery, and more as some random character studies (the circus folk) and give time to reveal Elizabeth’s heritage a little, none of which seems terribly necessary to the story. Once things get moving again, Elizabeth finds out that to really solve the mystery and save her boat, she might have to return to the Kingdom, which of course will likely result in her capture and enslavement.
The reason the Patent Office is involved in the first place has to do with the missing brother who may be in possession of some mysterious illegal technology which sounds rather like a laser when it’s finally located. They also briefly arrest Elizabeth in the beginning of the story because of a gun she carried as her brother that gets left behind when she first meets her potential employer the Duchess. When they are forced to run away, it gets left behind and due to its unusual features gets investigated. Elizabeth finds out upon her release that it wasn’t really the gun the Office is after; rather the man she/her brother was hired to find.
One of the most interesting things about the whole situation is that the only person to discover Elizabeth’s secret double life is Julia. No one else seems to catch on. Given the number of risks she takes and close escapes, this seems a little unlikely that no one would be at all suspicious. But then, maybe that’s for later volumes; there’s 2 more stories in this series to my knowledge. I hope the Patent Office gets a little more attention, and that a few more characters get some development. Julia and Elizabeth are really the only ones who do here, and I like Julia better, and she’s effectively the side-kick.