Oh, what fun! Steampunk, great characters, a rousing adventure! That's this book in a nutshell.
Eliza Braun and Wellington Books are agents of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, Britain's hidden asset in the war against the unseemly in Victorian London. The fact that Eliza and "Welly," as Eliza not-so-fondly calls Books, are both agents of the Ministry is the only thing they have in common. Eliza is a "colonist" from New Zealand and therefore subject to the slings and arrows of the purist upper-classes of England. Welly is one of those upper-class toffs. Eliza makes spectacular appearances, loaded with dynamite, guns, knives, and moxie. Welly is the quiet and methodical head of the Ministry Archives in the leaky basement of the secret Ministry building. You can see already where this is going, can't you?
They meet when Eliza is sent to rescue Welly from a prison in Antarctica where the nefarious House of Usher has taken him. With guns blazing, dynamite blasting (Eliza) and puzzle-solving (Welly), they work as a team to escape the dungeon. And that's only chapter one. And it has little to do with the current story, except to introduce the characters to each other.
Back at the ranch: For past and present sins, Eliza is demoted to be Welly's assistant in the Archives. Their boss, Doctor Sound, probably has an ulterior motive, of course, but it's not apparent, nor does it have a logical basis; it just gets the story going. And here is the story. Eliza's former partner, Harrison Thorne, has been committed to Bedlam. He went bonkers after handling a case on his own. While cleaning up the Archives, Eliza stumbles across Harry's notes from that case. After a poignant visit to Harry and more investigation, Eliza and Welly learn of the secret Phoenix Society. With much prodding from Eliza and trepidation from Welly, they surreptitiously begin reconnaissance on their own. They eventually land in the belly of the beast, so to speak, and more blasting and shooting and puzzle-solving ensue. What's there not to like?
There are side mysteries which are introduced but not solved in this first book in a projected series. Why was Welly kidnapped? What is the House of Usher? Why are two characters named Barnabus and Angelique Collins, also character names in the cult series, "Dark Shadows"? Why is one of the other agents named Bruce Campbell, the name of a cult movie actor? Methinks there are a lot of in-jokes in this book. Where does Doctor Sound go when he slips through the hidden door in the basement? What will become of the Ministry Seven, street urchins whom Eliza and Harry used in much the same fashion as Sherlock used the Baker Street Irregulars.
Before everyone runs out and gets a copy for their preadolescent steampunks, know that adult sexual talk and games are a part of the action.