Pip Ballantine: A full head of steam punk

By Stephen Jewell

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Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris are the creators of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Photo / Supplied
Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris are the creators of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Photo / Supplied

Nalini Singh is not the only New Zealand author making waves in the American science fiction scene. Now based in Manassas, Virginia, Philippa "Pip" Ballantine has released the first two volumes in her Books Of The Order series during the past 12 months, and she has also co-written Phoenix Rising, the inaugural Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences instalment with Tee Morris.

"I decided I wanted to come to America because the books are coming out here," says Ballantine, who shifted to the United States on a one-year business visa last October.

"There are a lot more face-time activities like sci-fi conventions and book signings that I can go to."

Born in Wellington, the former Victoria University student worked as a corporate librarian for more than a decade before becoming a full-time author early last year. "During all that time I was working on writing," she recalls. "I started when I was about 13 years old and I just kept working away.

It has now started to pay off for me, which is nice."

Along with traditional print publications, Ballantine has released numerous books online, becoming the first New Zealander to podcast a novel with Weaver's Web in 2006. She first met Morris through Canadian independent publisher Dragon Moon Press a few years before that.

"He was writing a book about pirates and I was writing one about Shakespeare," she says. "He got me into podcasting and said 'this is something you should be doing as part of your author platform'."

Phoenix Rising was originally created as a paid podcast before it was picked up by HarperCollins' Voyager imprint, which also recently released it in New Zealand. Set in an alternate Victorian London, it fits into a burgeoning sci-fi sub-genre, steampunk, which looks to the past as much as to the future.

"Jules Verne is like the grandfather of the tradition but he was writing about the future for him," says Ballantine. She believes steampunk's recent resurgence is a reaction to the harsher cyberpunk scenarios of movies like The Matrix and novels like Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon.

"We've got our faces pressed up against the future, so people are enjoying looking back, although sometimes with a bit too much nostalgia," she says.

"You don't want to forget that this was the age when women couldn't vote and children were stuffed up chimneys. But it was also the age of exploration, where people felt they could understand technology. The amateur explorer and scientist were still possible. They also had good manners. People miss manners. If you go to a steampunk convention, it's the most well-mannered place you could be, with gentlemen holding the door and things like that. It's quite charming."

Each concentrating on the lead character of their respective sex, Morris focused on debonair librarian Wellington Books, while Ballantine took charge of his feisty new partner, Eliza Braun, dispatched to work in the archives of the X-Files/Torchwood-esque Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.

Ballantine was able to draw on her own background for the pounamu pistol-wielding, New Zealand-born field agent. "It's nice to get something in there that isn't just based around Victorian England," she says. "What I like about the ministry is that it's got an international cast of characters, which gives it a lot more scope than something that's purely based in London. We also get into the Australia/New Zealand sibling rivalry with an Australian character called Bruce Campbell. The whole tone of the book is comedic and snarky. It's an adventurous romp."

Ballantine will explore New Zealand's colonial heritage further in next year's follow-up, Cogs and Corsets, which will feature pioneering New Zealand feminist Kate Sheppard.

"She arrives in London to help the suffragette movement and a few strange events occur," says Ballantine. "I've given her a bit of a steampunk makeover, so I hope people won't get too upset. Adding that kind of historical flavour is just part of the fun."

Beginning with last year's Spectyr before continuing with the recent Geist, The Books Of The Order is more traditional fantasy. "It's set in a world where the supernatural is an accepted fact," she says of the series, which is published in the US by Penguin offshoot Ace Books.

"A ghost might possess your granny and make her head spin. To stop that happening, they have a group called the Deacons, which works [in partnership] with Actives, who have a lot of magic coming out of their hands, paired with a Sensitive, who guides them. My idea is to have an older, very powerful Active paired with a really young, rookie Sensitive. They get sent to a city where there's meant to be an uprising of supernatural occurrences and on the way they discover a deeper conspiracy within the Order."

Ballantine also recently agreed to write dark fantasy Hunter And Fox for New York-based Pyr Books. After that, she hopes to complete a New Zealand-set alternate fantasy she has been working on for several years.

"It's set between the two World Wars and is about two New Zealanders who are magicians," she says.

"It was presented to publishers before I sold my other books and it was like, 'Americans don't want to read something set in New Zealand'. That seemed very strange because fantasy/sci-fi readers accept made-up worlds and, to a lot of them, New Zealand is a made-up world. But once I've finished my other books, my next move might be to get a bit more New Zealand stuff in.

"Hopefully by then I'll have a bit more of a name, so that'll overcome that little hurdle."


Phoenix Rising (Harper Collins $26.99)

- NZ Herald

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