I'm having a hard time deciding whether I liked this book or not. One one hand, the world building was absolutely fantastic, with just the right amount of detail to build it up in your head and leave the rest up to your imagination. New Venice seems like a splendid magical city of wonder and corruption, and it's this blend that brings it to life.
Where the story is lacking is probably speed. It takes forever for the story to pick up, and having so many unexplained references to things within the world doesn't help. Just...who the fuck is Helen? Context clues only go so far, to my never ending frustration. Why does everyone know her and how did she get all these magic powers? I suppose she will be explained in the next installment of this trilogy, but it's sort of bad form to bandy her about from the very beginning and not really tell us why or how she's doing everything she's doing.
There was also a distinct lack of appeal to the two main characters. Brentford was boring and passive, and Gabriel went a bit too far in the whole "dissipated rake" thing to be completely likeable. Still, persevering in reading the book was a reward. I ended up liking Brentford and his solidity as a character and appreciating Gabriel because of the bleeding heart he tries very hard (almost too hard) to conceal.
The side characters and their respective backgrounds were also pretty excellent. I loved the air of mystery around the masked Scavengers and the jolly anarchism of the airship Germans. The Sophragettes were probably my favorite dark horse faction, and I'd love to read more about Lillian Lake. The oppression of the Inuits also sort of struck a personal tone with me, and his respect of their culture went a long way in endearing Brentford to me.
This book reminded me a lot of Gordon Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters for what I liked and what I didn't like about it. It had the whirling steampunk adventure I loved and also the slow character-building and seedy debauchery I didn't quite want at all.
Would I recommend this book to people? It's certainly not for everyone, but I think I would tell people who have a healthy fascination with the steampunk genre and enough patience to root through a lot of diegetic in-jokes to give it some consideration.