Interview: Rod Duncan, Author of The Map of Unknown Things series

Duncan-CoverThe Speculative Shelf is excited to welcome Rod Duncan to the blog today for a discussion about his upcoming book, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (out January 14, 2020) from Angry Robot Books. It’s the third and final book in The Map of Unknown Things series. This trilogy closes the chapter on the Elizabeth Barnabus saga, which began in Duncan’s award-winning Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy. I’ve reviewed all six of the books here on the blog and I think you’ll really enjoy this final chapter if you’ve been following this wonderful alternate history series. Many thanks to Rod for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.


Hello Rod, thank you for joining us here today! Let’s jump right in:

From a process standpoint, how much preplanning do you do when writing a series like this? When you started penning the first book, did you know how this final book would conclude?

I began writing the first book – the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – without much idea of what would follow. Indeed, at the very start, I thought it would be a short story.

9200000084559751But, from your question, I’m guessing you’ve spotted various connections between book one and book six, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man. The most obvious perhaps is the motif of Elizabeth’s pistol with the emblem of the leaping Hare inlaid in turquoise on the stock. As well as being a weapon, it is an object resonant with meaning for her, being the last gift from her father. It symbolizes that ideal of family life, which was taken from her and against which she measures her present reality.

I knew that her recollection of the past and what it meant would eventually be challenged. If you re-read the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, you’ll find more clues layered in. Chapter 9 begins with a quotation that mentions the switching of guns in a conjuring trick, hinting that there may be an exact replica of Elizabeth’s pistol. Twins are mentioned twice in the following pages. All this was quite deliberate.

But don’t take that to mean the series was planned out. I knew about certain plot strands and story beats. But I didn’t know the story itself. By this, I mean, I did not understand the emotions – which are the foundation of the whole thing. Elizabeth would be confronted by her past in this final book of the trilogy. But how would she feel about it – this I did not know.

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Review: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man

9780857668448.jpgTitle: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (January 14, 2020)
Author: Rod Duncan
Pages: 400
Series: The Map of Unknown Things #3, Gas-Lit Empire #6 (Series Tracker)


Elizabeth Barnabus, our intrepid adventurer, having made it to the Free States of America, is pursued, caught, and eventually escapes the custody of Gas-Lit Empire agents. She flees to a kingdom in Oregon, where a power-hungry monarch has plans for eastward conquest. Only a grand illusion and an assist from a long-lost ally can save her skin and keep the world from falling into ruin.

This is the sixth and final(?) adventure for Elizabeth and these books have been really enjoyable. This specific trilogy has improved with each subsequent installment, with each book exploring a new frontier and story type. Book 1 was a seafaring tale, Book 2 a revenge story, and Book 3 now deals with court intrigue and politics. While I’m less interested in the world-altering events that Elizabeth continues to be mixed up with, her personal journey is the hook that keeps me coming back for more. The smaller moments of this book that deal with Elizabeth finding her identity, her family, and her real place in the world are exceedingly well done. 

In all, this is a satisfying conclusion to a six-book, two-trilogy saga that has been supremely entertaining and well-told by an author with a wonderful flair for storytelling.

★★★★ out of 5

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Outlaw and the Upstart King

TheOutlawtheUpstartKing_144dpi.jpgTitle: The Outlaw and the Upstart King (January 1, 2019)
Author: Rod Duncan
Pages: 384
Series: The Map of Unknown Things #2, Gas-Lit Empire #5 (Series Tracker)


After leaving the Gas-Lit Empire behind and surviving a run-in with a floating city of pirates, Elizabeth Barnabus has landed on the inhospitable island of Newfoundland in less than ideal circumstances. While seeking a seemingly impossible escape to the Free States of America she runs across Elias, a thumbless outlaw who hungers for revenge against those who wronged him.

I appreciate that each book in this series does something markedly different while remaining true to the spirit of the overall saga. Here, in a brand new setting, Elizabeth takes a backseat to newcomer Elias and he drives the narrative for most of the book. Elias adds a new element to this story as his bitterness and reckless nature serve as a nice counterbalance to Elizabeth’s kind heart and sharp mind.

Author Rod Duncan continues to convey atmosphere in an engaging way. You can smell the brine, feel the mud, and hear the gulls in the sky, which is a testament to Duncan’s skills as a storyteller. Even if I wasn’t always enraptured by the story, I could enjoy the vivid imagery and worldbuilding that Duncan employs.

Overall, this is a strong entry in the ever-expanding Gas-Lit Empire saga and I enjoyed this one slightly more than the first book in this new trilogy. I’m excited to see how the story rounds out in the final book.

★★★¾ out of 5

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Quietus

35464401Title: Quietus (2018)
Author: Tristan Palmgren
Pages: 512

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


With the assistance of a Carthusian monk, anthropologists from distant planes of the multiverse study the spread of the Black Death on Earth to better understand the plague that is ravaging their home civilization.

Ah yes, the ol’ Carthusian monk meets transdimensional anthropologist story that we’ve all read a thousand times before. But seriously, this is a bold swing from a fresh new voice in speculative fiction. Author Tristan Palmgren deserves major points for creativity, even though this historical fiction/science fiction mashup wasn’t totally my cup of tea.

I very much enjoyed the characterization of the monk Niccoluccio Caracciola, who, aside from having a great name, was my favorite character to follow. He functions as a reader proxy, who experiences the infiltration of the anthropologists and gets swept up into a massive conspiracy while tackling his own internal conflict that evolves over the course of the novel. Niccoluccio’s perspective grounds the narrative in some semblance of reality before the story careens away into a somewhat convoluted direction.

Quietus functions most effectively when it’s focused on its historical fiction beats and stumbles as it delves deeper into inaccessible science fiction elements. This, combined with slow pacing, and a story that feels 150 pages too long, leads to a lower rating than I wanted to give. Author Palmgren has a knack for original storytelling, but the blending of two disparate genres didn’t quite work for me.

★★★ out of 5