It’s 1910 and the British rule the subcontinent with an iron fist – and with strange technology fuelled by a power source known as Annapurnite – discovered in the foothills of Mount Annapurna. But they rule at the constant cost of their enemies, mainly the Russian and the Chinese, attempting to learn the secret of this technology… This political confrontation is known as The Greater Game.
Into this conflict is pitched eighteen year old Janisha Chaterjee who discovers a strange device which leads her into the foothills of the Himalayas. When Russians spies and the evil priest Durga Das find out about the device, the chase is on to apprehend Janisha before she can reach the Himalayas. There she will learn the secret behind Annapurnite, and what she learns will change the destiny of the world for ever.
Jani and the Greater Game is not your usual Eric Brown, at least not at first blush. There are no huge space ships, or alien invasions or travel among the stars, at least not judging from the synopsis on the back of the book. Instead, we’re given a YA steampunk adventure set in an alternative 1910 British Raj. Yet it turns out Jani and the Greater Game actually is classic Eric Brown: the book explores societal change and how his characters react to this, though in this case the change isn’t brought about through alien occupation, but through the rise of Indian Nationalism and the threat of invasion from places unknown.
Jani is a great character. Daughter of an English mother and an Indian father, her loyalties are often divided and she doesn’t fit wholly in either place. She does start the book with Nationalist leanings, which gradually turn into a conviction that India would be better off without the Raj. While initially planning to return to England and marry her suitor, once home in India, she feels its draw and a growing desire to settle there and use her medical degree to serve her people. In some ways Jani feels like she will be a suffragette in the future.
The narrative contains a rather heavy-handed commentary on British colonialism in India and the (genuine) atrocities committed there. This commentary mostly comes through the depiction of the British villains, who are the worst examples of the Raj imaginable, especially the execrable Colonel Smethers. Their casual racism and cruelty are blatant and feel almost like a caricature—though I sadly fear that it was, and in some cases is, true to life and not fictive at all. Yet with their villainy leaning against seeming over the top, as a consequence they feel rather flat and unexplored. Something that is also true for the two Russian spies that pursue Jane and Anand. The only one that has some depth to him is Durga Das, but only because his motivation is explored beyond being power-hungry.
Of course, Jani doesn’t go adventuring on her own, she has some very interesting allies. I loved the Lady Eddington she meets on the way home to India, who is such a spunky old lady. But her true companion and sidekick is Anand, childhood friend and staunch supporter. He was lovely and while more than a bit smitten with Jani, I liked that he also acted from a sense of duty and friendship. And of course there is the mysterious Jelch, who aids Jani in unexpected ways. He did feel like a ‘deus-ex-machina’ device on some occasions, yet he was also strangely compelling.
My favourite steampunk elements were Max the MechMan and Mel the clockwork elephant. Mr. Clockwork’s Emporium in general sounds like a wondrous place, but those two creations were just awesome. The mysterious Annapurnite, which powers them, is an interesting concept as was its origin. Though it’s unclear whether Annapurnite is actually a finite resource or whether it is retro-engineered from what’s been found in the footholds of the Himalayans.
Jani and the Greater Game has quite the old-school, Vernian vibe to it and in fact Jules Verne is directly referenced when it is intimated that his books were based on actual true events. Jani’s adventure starts with a bang when her airship is shot out of the sky en route to Delhi. In the aftermath Jani has an encounter that will change her life and will lead to three separate parties trying to capture her. There is a twist which is revealed early on that I don’t want to spoil, but suffice it to say that it changes the scope of the adventure. The story elements connected to the twists are perhaps familiar, but very entertaining.
Usually I have a hard time really getting into steampunk stories; I enjoy them, but there is always the niggle at the back of my head that things don’t make sense. On some level I’d hoped that Brown would be able to do for steampunk what he did for SF: make me realise that I could get it and enjoy it whole-heartedly. Sadly, he didn’t really succeed. While I enjoyed my time spent with Jani and I look forward to seeing how her adventure will continue in the next book, the novel hasn’t inspired the same desire to read more steampunk that Kéthani did for SF. Still, Jani and the Greater Game does make for a rip-roaring, old-school adventure and is great fun.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.