With a nod to Frankenstein, and Shelley’s poem, Prometheus Unbound, as well as references to pulp adventure stories, Isis Unbound by Allyson Bird is a hugely entertaining and staggeringly original first novel which combines steampunk with dark fantasy and horror. It’s easy to understand why it won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel.
Set in an alternate 19th century Britain, the tale unfolds in a Manceastre rules by a governor general related to a descendant of Anthony and Cleopatra. A new Cleopatra (a direct descendant of the original) makes an appearance, too – and the image of the queen on her royal barge in the city’s shipping canals is truly memorable.
But the tale really begins with Chief Embalmer Ptolemy Child’s two daughters, Ella and Loli, aged eighteen and ten, who are being instructed in the secrets of the mummification process when the dead begin to rise and roam the streets as zombies. The cause is infighting between the Egyptian Gods, who are busy trying to kill each other and Isis, the goddess who takes the dead to the other world, has been murdered by her sister, Nepythys.
The undead are not, however, your typical brain-eaters of current popular fiction. Instead they are creatures of pathos. We feel deeply sorry for these people, who are neither dead nor alive, yet long to be fully in one state or the other. The true villain of the novel is the Governor, with his horrific political machinations, tortures and murders. The Gods themselves are not much better, though their motivations are somewhat different from the governor’s, and politics – albeit celestial politics – play a role in their shenanigans, too.
There are no heroes here, but complex and flawed human beings, such as Ella herself, an opium addict, and often rather selfish.
In the fantasy genre in general, I find many novels far longer than they need to be. With this one, it’s the opposite – if anything, Isis Unbound is on the short side. In other words, I wanted more! The reason I say this is that there is so much going on. Isis Unbound is fine example of world-building on a compressed scale. Indeed, had the author written one volume just from Ella’s point of view, another from the point of view of the Gods, and a third from the evil governor’s, it could have worked as a trilogy. Which touches on a small aspect of the novel that did not appeal so much – multiple character points of view in individual chapters, which can be confusing at times. I would rather have a single point of view, if not for the entire novel, at least chapter by chapter. Having said that, plenty of big name writers sometimes do the same thing, so it may just be my personal preference.
The other very minor carp was that I felt the prologue was unnecessary. Prologues are a trope of many fantasy novels, and often read like info-dumps. Personally, I would have rather seen these details folded into the story rather than loaded at the front, although I also question whether the prologue was necessary in the first place. It’s such a fantastic story as it is that being dropped straight into the action would have done the job perfectly well, sans prologue.
Isis Unbound is by turns creepy, startling, and riveting. The mix of steampunk and fantasy and horror is unique, as far as I am aware. A truly wonderful novel, full of adventure and emotional depth, as well as terrific writing. I can’t wait to read what Allyson has in store for us next.
On a side note: I could easily imagine Isis Unbound as an HBO series, given the success of Game of Thrones at the moment.
Allyson Bird’s website is: http://www.birdsnest.me.uk/