As the second Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, The Janus Affair more than delivers on the promise of last year's Phoenix Rising, even if the story at the heart of it isn't quite as strong. With the preliminaries out of the way, Ballantine & Morris are able to spend more time exploring their steampunk society, developing the relationship between Books and Braun, and building upon some of the plot threads teased but left dangling in the first instalment.
Let's start with the steampunk elements. While present in the first book, they were either a part of the background or they stood out awkwardly. Here, not only are they far more prevalent, but they blend very well into the overall story. They're still cool and exciting (particularly the train at the beginning of the book and the motorcycle near the end), but they just seem to fit better. You just get the sense that Ballantine & Morris felt a bit more relaxed here, making it a bit easier to draw the reader into the fun.We also get to see more of the other agents from the Ministry, which is a trend I hope continues in subsequent books.
As for the characters, they are truly why this second volume shines. First of all, we find out just what was up with Bruce Campbell in the first book, and even if his story isn't perfectly resolved, it's handled very well. As for Books and Braun, we get to explore more of their respective backstories, particularly with Books - by the time you're done this book, the haunting voice of his father will make much more sense, and the origin of his James Bond style skills and experience will be satisfactorily exposed. The two flirt with the idea of romance much more than in the first book but, in the tradition of the best stories of the genre, it remains just that - flirting and fun. There's still a healthy dose of antagonism and distrust between them, but it's balanced with genuine friendship and admiration.
It's just a shame the story behind it all - the reason for our two heroes to get out of the Archives - isn't as exciting or as compelling as that of Phoenix Rising. It all starts out promising enough, with the very public disappearance of several women, all in a very 'flashy' manner (to say the least). The problem is the mystery of the disappearances is dragged out for too long, one woman disappearing after another, with little in the way of investigative progress or narrative exposure of the dastardly villains and their motives. The politics of it all are interesting, if a bit heavy-handed at times, but they tend to get in the way of moving the story forward. It must be said, however, that while the climactic set-piece isn't quite as exciting as the first book, Books does get a far better opportunity to shine.
All-in-all a fun, exciting read that bodes well for future instalments in the series. Well worth a read.