One of the worldbuilding challenges a steampunk story faces is explaining how technology managed to get so advanced without the British Empire’s place in the world going in a weird direction. Some people chose to gloss over the question, never addressing it, some actually do try to warp the development of the world and change Britain’s place in the world and some just create a new world with analogs for the British Empire and it’s colonies. Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game both answers the question in a nice way and integrates the secret of advanced technology into the foundation of the story.
Now there’s a spoiler here so you’re warned but it’s hard to discuss the book without mentioning this and I can’t really see anyone not getting this by the end of the first chapter or so.
So the way the world works is the British find a crashed spaceship in the late 1800s and start reverse engineering it’s technology. This makes the British Empire an even more dominate force on the planet than it was in our timeline and triggers a kind of cold war between the British, the Chinese and the Russians over the land of Nepal, where the space ship is located. Of course, most people don’t know what makes Nepal so special but at least the leaders of Britain and Russia do. (It’s not clear if the Chinese are aware of what makes the territory so valuable but that’s forgivable since they’re not really a part of the story of this book.)
The primary character of this book is Janisha (Jani to family and friends), a young half English half Indian woman who has been called back to India from studying medicine in England because her father has fallen ill. Along the way her airship is shot down by Russians. Because that’s the kind of thing that happens to airships during cold wars.
Once again this plot point serves multiple purposes. Not only does it establish the Russians as our antagonists in this story it also provides a very natural reason for Jani to encounter the airships’ most exotic passenger – Jelch, an alien that was under heavy guard in the hold of the airship. When Jani’s ride crashes Jelch’s prison breaks open and the guards wind up dead. Jani offers Jelch medical treatment but Jelch tells her the medicine she knows will not work on him. Still, Jani’s generosity and compassion is something Jelch has apparently not seen much of from humanity and he’s moved to leave her a gift and protect her from the Russian landing party that has been sent to eliminate survivors.
Another plot point that it won’t take a perceptive reader long to figure out is that Jelch is on earth to oppose an invasion from a second alien species. Earth is a piece in the Greater Game being played by this expanding alien empire. The aliens already have agents on earth and, along with the Russians, these alien agents will plague Jani and her friends from beginning to end.
Now like War of the Worlds there are undoubtedly parallels between the British Empire and the invading aliens intended but, at least in the first installment of the series (and yes, this is a series), there’s no preachy moralizing or hitting us over the head with messages. While Jani does feel a bit like a Mary Sue at times she and the cast around her are at least well written and beginning to grow from hastily sketched archetypes to well rounded characters and the story promises to put a new, fun skin on the fairly well explored prevent-otherworldly-invasion storyline. If you enjoy steampunk sensibilities it’s worth your while to check it out.