If you’d listened to our most recent podcast (you didn’t, because the recording got messed up, so you might never hear it at all), you would have heard me say this was a Sherlock Holmes-y book that was sort-of-but-not-really steampunk. I was half correct; full of airships and clockwork automatons and laudanum benders and Queen Victoria on an artificial lung crafted from bellows, it’s squarely steampunk. But to define it as that would be to sell it really short. Rather than relying on the setting, Mann writes a good story, leaving the setting to seep in around the edges.
Before we go any further, I have a confession to make. There’s a blight on my reader’s record, a mark of shame I really need to correct. I’ve never read any of the Sherlock Holmes books. From what I’ve picked up (thanks mostly to Gregory House), this book shares a lot in common with Doyle’s beloved mysteries.
Maurice Newberry is a detective and an “agent of the Crown.” He’s not an actual cop, but is good chums with the head of Scotland Yard in addition to packing royal credentials as a sleuth. He lives alone, and spends long hours in his study, often reading books on the obscure or occult, and his hobbies include laudanum and deductive crime-solving. His Watson is a Miss Veronica Hobbes, a sharp and fairly courageous woman, who compliments Newberry nicely. (Her character is fairly nuanced, and quite possibly the strongest in the book.)
In the novel’s early going, there are three primary plot lines. Firstly, there is some sort of plague brought over from India. It is ravaging the slums, and is effectively a small, but obviously hazardous, zombie outbreak. Secondly, there as been a string of murders in Whitechapel, seemingly perpetrated by a glowing blue policeman’s ghost. Thirdly, an airship crashes catastrophically, killing 50, and no sign of the brass automaton pilot is to be found.
It’s fairly obvious of course, being the sort of book this is, that these three strands will eventually be braided together. The fun is in following Newberry and Hobbes as they solve the case(s). So I won’t spoil any of that. As it plays out, this book delivers from every angle. The characters are well rendered. The dialogue has a decorous, almost too-proper politeness to it, one that any fan of Victorian literature will probably find as charming and funny as I did. There are plenty of exciting action scenes, as well as cerebral “Aha” moments. The writing fits the novel’s historical motif well, never underwhelming but rarely going over the top either. The sci-fi elements are plentiful, but don’t overstep their welcome–or worse become so over-concerned with plausibility as to drag down the tone.
This is a fun, engaging book that I think may be criminally underlooked due to genre. Don’t let the steampunk setting repel you, the setting is crucial to the story, but in no way the reason for its success. If you like mysteries and adventure stories, you’re almost certain to enjoy this book.