Finn Fancy Necromancy-Randy Henderson

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Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: January 1, 2015

 

Finn Gramaraye is a most unusual ex-con.  He’s a talented necromancer and one of a group of magically gifted humans known collectively as the Arcana, living surreptitiously among the “mundane” population.  His crime—assault on a creature of the fey—and his punishment is exile to the Other Realm, the place beyond the mists the fey call home.  There he’s forced to relive his most intimate memories for their amusement.  Those exiled to the Other Realm feel no sense of the passage of time and when his sentence is completed, 15 year old Finn is transferred into his now 40 year old body.

Normally, such a sentence wouldn’t constitute an insurmountable culture shock to an Arcana.  Finn’s body has been loaned out the past quarter century to a changeling who will catch him up on the life he’s missed.  His parole underway, the transfer ceremony runs smoothly right up to the moment someone interferes using dark magic.  Finn survives the attack but the transfer is incomplete, and he ends up without those crucial memories of his life since incarceration.  For someone stuck in an 80’s frame of mind, 2011 is going require some major adjustment.  As if that’s not enough for his still adolescent mind to deal with, he’s just been framed—again—this time for the murder of the same witch he was convicted of assaulting all those years ago.

Now he’s got 72 hours to not only exonerate himself but to unravel a conspiracy that threatens the uneasy peace between Arcana and Fey, a conspiracy that someone—or something—will do anything to keep him from solving.  Concurrently, Finn finds himself dealing with an older brother who just might want him dead, a younger brother who thinks he’s a waerwolf, a zealous enforcer who isn’t particularly interested in due process, and not one, but two romantic entanglements from his past.  For Finn Gramaraye, exile is not looking so bad any more.

Finn Fancy Necromancy is a novel that took several attempts to fully immerse myself in, perhaps owing to the present state of the genre.  Since J. K. Rowling exploded on the scene, a sort of “Harry Potter Effect” has manifested as publishers chase the phenomenon.  It’s an unavoidable side effect of Rowling’s success–a glut of knock offs and wannabe’s, all published by an industry desperate to replicate her success while the subject is hot.  Upon cursory reading, I feared Finn’s story was going to fall into the “wannabe” category and set it down in search of something else.  Revisiting the novel a few months later, I discovered the folly of my initial impression. Neither Randy Henderson nor Finn Fancy Necromancy deserve the “also ran” moniker. 

Randy Henderson’s novel has all those things you’ve come to expect in Urban Fantasy: Mundies (those regular folks, clueless to the magical world around them), Arcana (those gifted with magical abilities, living un-noticed by regular society), Fey (magical creatures such as Gnomes, Sasquatch, Witches and Waerwolves), all of them maintaining an uneasy truce while they pursue their own goals.  Of course, with all these competing factions, there’s need of a magical police force, the Enforcers, tasked with keeping the peace, or at least some version thereof.  All very standard fair in your typical Urban Fantasy, but it’s also got that certain something that makes a particularly good fantasy story stand out.  Whether it’s the interspersed humour, the compelling characters, or an intriguing mystery, Henderson has found the storyteller’s sweet spot.  Add to that plenty of action, whether in the form of Sasquatch fights, Warlock rumbles, or a mission impossible into the heart of an Arcana vault by Finn and company and you’ve got a winning combination.

There’s also action on the emotional front.  Finn’s tale is a coming of age story, as he tries to recapture both his lost youth and his estranged family and finding out neither may be possible.  Having no experience with the foibles of teen relationships, when he runs into his former girlfriend (now a mother with her own teenager), he’s ill equipped to recognize that though she may be the girl of his dreams, that’s possibly all she ever was.  Nor does it help that the mundie girl he used to pal around with has grown into a beautiful women who’s no longer shy in demonstrating her affection for this clueless boy in a man’s body.

Finn’s relationship with his family is also complicated, considering the eclectic nature of their personalities.  His older brother Mort is consumed by jealousy of Finn’s necromantic abilities and fears that Finn’s re-emergence may usurp his position within the family necrotorium.  Finn’s younger brother Pete adores him, unaware of Finn’s participation in a youthful prank that may or may not have turned him into a lycanthrope.  His father has lost his mind but not his ability to conjure, and his sister is literally allergic to magic, a decidedly unhealthy malady for someone from a family whose business revolves around the one thing she can’t be near. 

All in all, it’s a magical blend of Six Feet Under and the Addams Family upon which Randy Henderson has placed his personal stamp, and an excellent debut to a series which continues in Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, out this February.  Randy Henderson maintains at RandyHenderson.com.

Andromeda’s Fall — William C. Dietz

Andromeda's Fall

“So,” Boad said as he eyed her bandage,” what’s the other guy look like?”

“I left him facedown,” McKee answered truthfully.

Boad looked surprised. “You’re serious?”

“He attacked me.”

“Well, that’s what we’re looking for,” the NCO said. “People who aren’t afraid to fight…What kind of training are you interested in?”

McKee thought of the Empress Ophelia. “I want to learn how to kill people.”

Boad’s eyebrows rose, and he nodded slowly. “Well, young lady…If that’s what you want—we’ll sure as hell teach you. Welcome to the Legion.”

Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: January 3, 2014

When Princess Ophelia Ordanus decides it’s time for a little “regime change,” she doesn’t do it by half measures, proceeding to drop her brother, Emperor Alfred Ordanus III, from the nearest observation tower of the Imperial Palace and immediately embarking on a massive purge of anyone whose loyalty to the former ruler might deem them suspect.  Her synthetic troops, “synths” for short, are both methodical and ruthless, decimating the foremost families of the Empire, including that of Cyntarch Dor Carletto, whose close relationship with the Emperor seals his fate, and by extension his family’s.  In the ensuing slaughter, Dor’s younger brother Rex manages to elude the death squads and send a warning to his niece, allowing her to avoid a similar fate—if she moves quickly.

Lady Catherine Carletto isn’t your average socialite, spending her days luxuriating in her family fortune.  She’s learned the family trade (cyborg technology, in case you’re wondering); she’s smart, resourceful, and fueled by both her desire to live and to avenge her family.  To achieve either goal Cat must disappear, remaining unnoticed within an empire whose agents have earmarked significant resources to her capture.  Bereft of options, her one chance at survival lies in joining the Legion, a military organization where they don’t ask questions about your past.  Criminals, dissidents, those who want or need to disappear, the Legion takes anyone as long as they’re willing to fight.  With her signature on a contract, Cat Carletto the wealthy socialite dies, and Andromeda McKee the legionnaire, is born.  If she can evade the Empress’ assassins and survive her time in the Legion, Andromeda McKee just might find a way to exact revenge.

William C. Dietz is known for his military science fiction, most notably the Legion of the Damned series, chronicling the exploits of a futuristic military force modeled along the lines the famous French Foreign Legion.  Made up of human soldiers and their cyborg counterparts, the Legion attracts the underbelly of the Empire, molding them into a superior fighting force whose loyalty is not so much to the Empire as to their fellow legionnaires.  Consisting of nine novels, The Legion series wrapped up in 2011 with A Fighting Chance.  Since then, Dietz has embarked on a prequel trilogy:  Andromeda’s Fall, Andromeda’s Choice, and most recently, Andromeda’s War.  Being a latecomer to the series, Andromeda’s Fall seemed a most excellent place to begin.

Andromeda’s Fall is an origin story, introducing the reader to the life of a legionnaire as we watch Andromeda train in the ways of war, fast rising through their ranks.   Andromeda is the prototypical strong female character, blending intelligence and cunning to further her goals, and Dietz portrays her in a realistic manner, at least as realistic as anyone can in a science fictional setting.  She’s not the stereotypical “man with boobs” trope that a lot of authors tend to get wrong when they overemphasize the “strong” part of “strong female character.”  Her strength comes from her intellect rather than her ability to throw a punch, and it makes Andromeda all the more interesting.  Her personality is no-nonsense without being overbearing, none of the trademark “snark” that seems to define a lot of characters these days when they mistake an obnoxious personality for good leadership skills.

A good portion of the novel deals with Andromeda’s training with the Legion, and while it felt somewhat abbreviated for the level of competence she exhibits, it also gives us a good introduction to the Legion, how it operates, and to the cybernetic troopers (organic brains controlling robot bodies) that make up a significant portion of their fighting force.  From there, the newly minted legionnaires whet their newfound skills fighting insurgents on Orlo II, one of the many worlds unhappy with their new Empress and her repressive policies.  Once on planet, the rest of the novel consists of a series of combat situations for Andromeda and her compatriots leading up to an invasion by the alien Hudathans.

The Hudathans are the principal adversaries in the Legion of the Damned series, and this is perhaps why they aren’t fleshed out as a race particularly well in this prequel.  My guess is that their motivations, psychology and society have been discussed in detail within the regular series, yet as someone coming to it fresh, the lack of back-story detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of the novel.  However, the introduction of a series of synthetic assassins hunting down Andromeda/Cat added a nice “cat and mouse” aspect to the novel.

Andromeda’s Fall is not without its faults.  Apparently in the far future, no one can administer DNA testing or facial recognition properly.  I rolled my eyes while reading a scene where one of the hunters couldn’t identify Andromeda as Cat Carletto, not because she’s had massive plastic surgery, but because she had recently broken her nose and received a facial scar not on the official record.  In another, the tension mounts as an FTD (fugitive tracking device) goes through the ranks, stops to sniff McKee, but then simply decides not to take a DNA sample.  It was a little bit of unnecessary deus ex machina that felt contrived.  However, this isn’t so much a complaint as it is a quibble.

I do find it interesting that Dietz decided to set his far future narrative in a universe where the dominant form of government is the Monarchy, a ruling system that seems quite anachronistic in this day and age.  But, there is plenty of precedent.  Frank Herbert did it in Dune with the reign of Emperor Shaddam IV, Asimov did the same with his Foundation series and Flash Gordon (okay, I might be stretching the analogy here) had Ming the Merciless, ruler of the planet Mongo.  It’s an interesting throwback to the past thrust into a futuristic setting much as the fleet actions of many a sci-fi novel hearken back to the naval traditions embodied in Horatio Hornblower.

Andromeda’s Fall is an excellent starting point for those fans of military science fiction looking to explore the world of the Legion of the Damned.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall- Vaughn Entwistle

 

 

 

 

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police.  If you believe a murder has taken place–“

“No Mr. Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem.  I need you to solve a murder…that has not yet taken place.”

Source: Review copy from publisher

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date: March 28, 2014

1894—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has committed murder most foul, and feels not the least regret.  With the death of Sherlock Holmes, his body washed away in the waters below Reichenbach Falls, Doyle is finally free to write the fiction he wants, stories of substance to be remembered beyond his lifetime—stories with greater depth than the trivial “Penny Dreadfuls” the public clamors for.  Yet Holmes’ devoted fans will have none of that, and their erstwhile adoration has turned to indignation at the demise of Britain’s most famous consulting detective.  Doyle’s relief at being free of Holmes’ shadow turns to dismay when he finds himself the object of the public scorn.

At the very same time Doyle is finding London less than conducive to his health—both physical and mental—he receives a summons from an anonymous woman with an unusual affliction and a penchant for melodrama.  She wants to enlist his help in solving a murder—her own as it stands—a murder that will take place two weeks hence.  The mysterious woman claims to be a renowned medium, utilizing her clairvoyance to pull aside the veil of life and glimpse what lies beyond.  Unfortunately for her, what lies beyond is death by murder.  Yet to her mind there is some hope of avoiding that fate, a hope maintained because of the one face she sees clearly in her visions—the face of Arthur Conan Doyle.

At first Doyle is skeptical, but after witnessing a performance of Daniel Dunglas Hume’s astounding levitation and “feats of psychic wonder” with his good friend and confidante, the irreverent and debauched Oscar Wilde, he begins to wonder.  Shortly thereafter, his fate is sealed when he receives a summons to appear as a prospective member of the Society for Psychical Research at Thraxton Hall, the matriarch of which is one Hope Thraxton, a young medium with an unusual affliction…

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is first in a series of novels known as The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicling the exploits of Doyle as he examines um…well…the paranormal.  It’s a mystery blending historical reality and paranormal fantasy as Conan Doyle explores the world of 19th century Spiritualism, a subculture populated either by paranormal charlatans or characters finely attuned to what lies beyond the mortal coil .

Before reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall I was only vaguely aware of Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and most unaware of the Society for Psychical Research, a group that astonished me by its mere existence.  Skepticism is apparently much more a part of my nature than I thought, and so it was that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief while reading this novel.  Accepting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was somewhat of a sleuth in real life is really quite easy.  Accepting that he was a sucker for the pseudo-science of Spiritualism is not.  However, one should not argue with history, so let’s agree for the moment that Doyle was as fallible as the rest of us and go on from there.

What I found while reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is that while Entwistle has come up with an intriguing idea, his execution of the storyline was rather uneven.  While doing an excellent job of incorporating historical characters of the SFPR into this tale of paranormal intrigue, there were times where the background, the characters, or the situation, were rather stereotyped.

An example would be the setting.  Thraxton Hall is a formerly stately manor fallen to disrepair (if only to provide a suitably creepy setting for the novel) in which the characters find themselves conveniently trapped for the majority of the novel due to a raging storm and its isolated locale.  It’s the house on haunted hill without the hill, a setting particularly suited to ghost stories, mysteries, and almost every Scooby-Doo episode.  Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if there are any English estates that don’t harbor a multitude of secret doors and passages to sepulchral crypts.  And yet it is par for the course with regards the supernatural, a manor reminiscent of Hell House or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.

As to the characters, they represent a mélange of the eclectic and cliché, from Madam Zhozhovsky, renowned Russian émigré (possibly of Barnsley in Yorkshire) and noted palm-reader/medium/charlatan, to Lord Webb, a rather compelling mesmerist (and stuffed shirt) whose motives are not altogether forthright. Then there’s Mrs. Kragan, the crotchety head housekeeper with her own motives, and Greaves, a blind butler who knows the ins and outs of Thraxton Hall like the back of his hand—by  necessity. There’s Frank Podmore, skeptic (and historical figure) obsessed with unmasking the frauds he believes to infest the society, especially with regards Daniel Dunglas Hume, “the greatest psychic medium in the world!” another historical figure whose affinity for levitation borders on the absurd.  There’s Hope Thraxton, heir to Thraxton Hall, a talented medium and heiress who suffers an unusual affliction that necessitates her living in continual darkness and that may eventually lead to dementia—if it already hasn’t.  An amusing nod to the Sherlock canon resides in the character of “The Count”, a European aristocrat who sports a three-quarter mask reminiscent of certain Bohemian King for much the same purpose.

Lest we forget, this is a novel taken from the paranormal casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet it is in him that we find the least flamboyant character.  He’s dismissive of his fictional sleuth, yet envious of Sherlock’s analytical abilities.  He’s duty bound by the conventions of the 19th century, conflicted by his physical attraction to young Hope Thraxton and the guilt of such thoughts in the face of his wife Touie’s long illness.  He also plays the role of the straight man to his eccentric friend, the bohemian Oscar Wilde.

It’s with Oscar Wilde that I as a reader found a character both ridiculous, yet delightful.  Wilde is portrayed in the novel as (I hope) a caricature, outrageously flamboyant, charming yet prissy, bombastic yet squeamish. He’s also easily bored and very, very bohemian, in affectation if not reality. Wilde is a compelling sidekick, a marvelous friend to Conan Doyle, and frankly a lot of fun, but there are moments when his overbearing personality rises to extreme proportions.  Then again, I suspect such was true of the man upon which this caricature is based.   Finally, we have the eponymous Revenant of Thraxton Hall, an entity that may or may not be influencing the behavior of several characters and a specter to whom I’ll let the reader introduce themselves.

As for the situation, Conan Doyle’s investigation into Hope Thraxton’s murderous vision was dealt with in a generally appealing manner, yet there were times when it felt as though he was making leaps of logic rather than working from the observable facts.  There’s also an aside, a “locked room murder” mystery within the mystery that for the life of me HAS NO MOTIVE.  A character is killed for no discernible reason whatsoever (and believe me, I searched the text several times for a motive), leaving me as the reader distracted by a puzzle with no solution.  There’s a how, when and where, but no why?*  The plot tended to meander rather than evolve and there were times when Doyle seemed to stumble to conclusion rather than solve the mystery.  However, there is a scene near the end of the novel involving a telegram and a train that makes up for most of the meandering in one fell (redemptive and clever) swoop.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall was a delightful idea, combining Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism with his natural talent for mysteries, yet this idea was unevenly executed.  I suspect that’s more the result of this being a debut or inexperience rather than any lack of ability and that with a sophomore novel, the writing will even out.  Even though The Revenant of Thraxton Hall wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I would heartily recommend it to die-hard fans of Conan Doyle.

Vaughn Entwistle maintains a website (and blog) at www.vaughnentwistle.com and has a sequel, The Dead Assassin, to be published in June of 2015.  Based on the description, and being one of those die-hard fans, I suspect I’ll be checking it out.

 

 

*If you discover the motive behind the locked room murder, please leave a note in the comments.  It would be much appreciated.

 

Who Thinks Evil–Michael Kurland

 

 

 

 

WhoThinksEvil“We need, we must have something–someone–different. Someone acquainted within the unseen worlds of mendacity, deceit, treachery, and falsehood that lurk in the corners of the realm.  Someone who can travel about freely in the underworld of the illegal and illicit, and who is trusted by these men who trust no one.”

“You need,” suggested Moriarty, “a criminal to deal with other criminals.”

“Exactly!” said the Duke, thumping a thick forefinger on the arm of his chair.

“So you’ve sent for me,” said Moriarty.

Source: Review copy from publisher.

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: March 7, 2014

The year is 1890, two years since “Saucy Jack” preyed on the prostitutes of London’s East End, yet he’s still very much on the mind of many a streetwalker as they go about their illicit business.  From the dimly lit streets of Whitechapel to the bedrooms of posh “gentlemen’s clubs”, horror at the Ripper’s crimes and anger at the inability of the Metropolitan Police to bring him to heel are still fresh.  When a prostitute at one of London’s more fashionable bawdy houses is murdered in a manner reminiscent of the Ripper, the forces of Scotland Yard and agents of the Queen herself are gathered to both quell rumours of his reappearance and catch the perpetrator on the sly—before the cauldron that is public opinion boils over into violence.  Complicating their surreptitious investigation is the identity of their prime suspect, the last known patron of the victim—namely one Albert Victor—Crown Prince and heir to the throne of England.  Further complicating matters—his sudden disappearance and the inability of both his minders and the police to find him.  Victoria’s men have their work cut out for them—either prove the heir apparent’s innocence or bring him to justice without jeopardizing the royal succession.

Meanwhile, the one man (Sherlock Holmes aside) capable of unravelling the various threads of this royal plot is languishing in the deepest cells of Newgate Prison, himself the victim of an elaborate frame-job.  Who else but Professor James Moriarty, a.k.a. the “Napoleon of Crime’, would have the contacts and resources within the criminal underworld, not to mention the criminal insight, to stop this fiendish scheme?  With the enthusiastic help of American journalist Benjamin Barnett, Moriarty’s diminutive majordomo Mummer Tolliver and the rather reluctant help of the brothers Holmes, Moriarty must solve the murder, clear the name of the heir to the throne and thereby provide his own salvation.

Michael Kurland wrote the first of his Moriarty novels, The Infernal Device in 1978, going on to write three sequels, the last published in 2006.  Since then, the Napoleon of Crime has been on hiatus, at least until the publication of Who Thinks Evil earlier this year.  Previously only attainable in e-book format, the entire series is now becoming available as Titan Books reissues the series for those eager to add Moriarty’s tales to their collection of Holmesian novels.

As a fan of the Holmes mythos but not having read Kurland’s earlier novels, I found myself looking forward to seeing the world as Moriarty does, and as a result was far from disappointed with this unique spin on the Consulting Detective’s nemesis.  Instead of the one dimensional epitome of evil one thinks of upon hearing the name “Moriarty”, Kurland has created a well-rounded villain, both nuanced and with depth of character.  Professor James Moriarty is not evil for evil’s sake, but rather a practitioner of a certain “pragmatic” evil. Moriarty’s crimes are revealed as selfishly altruistic—necessary to fund his scientific endeavors and therefore essential to the betterment of mankind.  Perhaps selfishly altruistic is not the right phrase—narcissistically altruistic?  Either way, the practice of science can be expensive and Moriarty is more pragmatic than malicious in his affairs.

James Moriarty is an unusual character, having evolved over the years from a minor (yet consequential) character in the Holmes canon to a legend towering above lesser literary villains.  Kurland treats Moriarty as a misunderstood genius and flips the relationship between Moriarty and Holmes and their relative claims to brilliance on its head.  In Who Thinks Evil, Holmes is not so much Moriarty’s equal but a decidedly lesser intellect— almost “Lestrade- like.”

Whereas inspector Lestrade traditionally plays an inept counterpoint to Holmes obvious aptitude for affairs deductive, in this tale Holmes himself acts the comic foil.  Sherlock may indeed be the world’s foremost “Consulting Detective”, but Moriarty is the “Napoleon of Crime,” and by far the superior intellect. Kurland amuses the reader time and again as we watch Holmes’ bumbling efforts to “unmask” Moriarty’s villainy.  One scene in particular demonstrates Moriarty’s easy intellectual superiority and involves the delivery of tea and cookies for Holmes to enjoy whilst the consulting detective “surreptitiously” surveils Moriarty from a bush.  Sherlock’s scientific method of observation is so much more finely honed in Moriarty and this, combined with both an eidetic memory and startlingly high I. Q. makes Holmes a simpleton by comparison.  Yet Moriarty respects Holmes even though he can be (and is) a great nuisance to Moriarty’s affairs.  Given every chance to remove the meddlesome Holmes from the equation, Moriarty proves his malicious nature more myth than fact.

Just as Holmes needs a biographer in the form of Dr. John Watson, Kurland provides Moriarty his own chronicler in Benjamin Barnett, another man of letters and associate by way of gratitude for the help Moriarty afforded him years earlier.  He’s clearly Moriarty’s stand in for Watson and a capable sleuth in his own right.  Together with Mummer Tolliver, they act as Moriarty’s proxy in the hunt for the murderer of London’s prostitutes while he focuses his time on foiling the plot to undermine the monarchy.

Overall an excellent novel, there are a few quibbles to be had with Who Thinks Evil, the first of which is whether or not this is actually a mystery or more properly—a thriller.  To me, the hallmark of a good mystery is how the author handles the Reveal—that moment when everything comes together and we as readers know exactly whodunit.  Once you have the Reveal, there’s no longer a mystery, hence the earlier the Reveal, the less the novel is a mystery and the more a thriller.  Alex Grecian’s The Yard is a good example of this.  We as readers know within a couple of chapters who the killer is—mystery solved, as it were.  Granted, the protagonist(s) don’t solve the mystery until much later in the novel, but there’s no mystery left for the reader.  At that point the novel becomes a thriller, and if handled properly, it’s not too much of a letdown to know the identity of the culprit before the protagonist does.  I myself enjoy a good mystery, preferring to figure things out for myself or be surprised at the end of the novel rather than knowing too much too soon.  In other words, I like some mystery in my mystery.

Who Thinks Evil relinquishes the pretense of being a mystery about halfway through, once the antagonist(s) are introduced and we start seeing things from their viewpoint.  From then on, it’s a straight line to thriller and the suspense no longer lies in whodunit, but rather how Moriarty and company will resolve the situation.  Thankfully, Kurland adeptly makes the transition from mystery to thriller, leaving the reader satisfied without feeling ripped off by the early reveal.

The second quibble I had with Who Thinks Evil revolves around the climax of the novel.  In the moment when Moriarty’s plans have all come together and the trap is set, something happens that makes a shambles of his meticulous preparations.  An unforeseen turn of events demonstrates that all the planning in the world is subject to the vagaries of fate.  It’s more outrageous fortune than meticulous schemes that foil the conspirators, and not so much a matter of giant intellect as having a girl who’s handy with a hatpin.

However, these are mere quibbles that don’t ever rise to the level of complaint. All in all, Michael Kurland has demonstrated a unique perspective with regards to the accepted mythos of Sherlock Holmes and enlightened us as readers to the misunderstood brilliance that is Professor James Moriarty.

B+

 

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes–George Mann

TheCasebookofNewburyandHobbes

Source: Review Copy

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date:  September 24, 2013

I was first introduced to the World of Steampunk a few years ago when I happened upon a copy of Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman A wonderful read, it’s the story of a young man named Orphan living in a Steampunk Victorian England and trying to track down “the Bookman”, a terrorist responsible for the death of his paramour.  My interest stoked by this delightful tale, I then took a chance on the works of Stephen Hunt, who, with The Court of the Air deserves (as far as I’m concerned) the title of King of Steampunk.  However, if Hunt is the reigning King, then George Mann may very well be known as the Crown Prince.  From The Affinity Bridge to The Executioner’s Heart, Mann has created an alternate Victorian England populated by characters heroic and sinister—and sometimes both—and created an investigative duo whose exploits rival those of a 221B Baker Street’s consulting detective and his trusty biographer.

Over the course of four novels, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have combatted foes both technological and occult, serving as agents of the crown to protect and foster the interests of her majesty, Queen Victoria.  They’re not alone in their endeavors, at times enlisting the help of, at other times being seconded to, Sir Charles Bainbridge, chief inspector of Scotland Yard.  Yet we’ve never heard Newbury’s (or Hobbes for that matter) origin story, and The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is Mann’s way of fleshing out their back story during the periods not chronicled by the novels.  It also reveals a ghost of the past in the person of Templeton Black, Newbury’s former assistant, and introduces the future in Peter Rutherford, a member of the British Secret Service who will go on to create his own legacy.

The collection consists of 15 eclectic stories, so let’s run down the list:

  • The Dark Path –Wherein Newbury and his former assistant Templeton Black discover the virtues of smoking and an old witch discovers the perils of over-enthusiastic horticulture.
  • The Hambleton Affair –Wherein Newbury relates his account of the disappearance of an old school mate’s wife and his discovery of the extent a man may go to to preserve his marriage.
  • The Shattered Teacup –Wherein Newbury and Bainbridge investigate the suspicious death of Lord Carruthers and discover the fowl truth of the matter.
  • What Lies Beneath –Wherein Newbury takes a constitutional at the home of an English “gentleman” and discovers the gentleman is anything but.
  • The Lady Killer –Wherein Newbury meets his match in the form of the lovely Irene Adler Lady Arkwell and discovers that while women are the fairer sex, this particular lady is not willing to play fair.
  • The Case of the Night Crawler –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes enlist the help of a certain consulting detective’s biographer to hunt down a mechanical creature bent on revenge.
  • The Sacrificial Pawn –Wherein Sir Charles Bainbridge finds himself an unwitting participant in Newbury’s game of chance with a cult by the name of The Cabal of the Horned Beast.
  • Christmas Spirits –Wherein Newbury finds himself unintentionally re-enacting a popular Dickens’ tale on Christmas Eve while in an opium daze and discovering that not all spirits bring redemption.
  • Strangers from the Sea Wherein Newbury comes across a long-lost note from a colleague, and the prescient warning contained within while reminiscing about a not so merry trip to the beach.
  • The Only Gift Worth Giving –Wherein Sir Charles lends a hand to Newbury and reinvigorates his spirit with a challenge.
  • A Rum Affair –Wherein Newbury and Hobbes discover that punch can be spiked with much more than rum.
  • A Night, Remembered –Wherein Peter Rutherford makes introductions to both the reader and Maurice and discovers the most disturbing truth behind the sinking of the S.S. Titanic.
  • The Maharajah’s Star –Wherein Rutherford meets Professor Angelchrist and discovers that the Maharajah’s Star is more dream than reality.
  • The Albino’s Shadow Wherein Rutherford consults with Ms. Veronica Hobbes in his efforts to hunt down one of the most wanted men in the Empire, a peculiarly pale criminal mastermind by the name of “Mr. Zenith.”  Little does he know, Zenith is just as interested to meeting him.
  • Old Friends –Wherein Angelchrist relates the events leading to his association with Newbury and Hobbes and Rutherford brings a smile to an old man’s face.

According to the author’s notes, each of these stories can be found in other venues, but this is the first time they’ve been compiled into a comprehensive collection.   Overall, it’s an excellent addition to Mann’s Steampunk universe, filling in some of the details of Newbury’s past and looking forward to the future of his “Ghost” series of roaring twenties novels, set in a Steampunk inspired New York.  Stand out stories include his Sherlock homage, The Case of the Night Crawler and his tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Strangers from the Sea.  My personal favourite is The Shattered Teacup, which brings to mind the best of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.  It’s a fun murder mystery with obvious Steampunk influence in the clockwork owl that proves essential to solving the case.  The only story that falls flat (for me, at least) is What Lies Beneath, but honestly, that owes more to my distaste for epistolary writing than anything Mann did with the story.

The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes is a seamless blend of Victorian detective story sprinkled with Steampunk elements and a dash of the occult.  Mann seamlessly captures the flavour of Victorian mystery fiction usually identified with Arthur Conan Doyle while adding his own flourishes to it.  It’s a great addition to the universe of Newbury and Hobbes mysteries, fleshing out the series for those fans that want to see a bit more.  An added bonus is the inclusion of several new characters, from Templeton Black to Peter Rutherford, and of course, an arch nemesis for Newbury in the form of Lady Arkwell.  However, if you haven’t been a follower of Newbury and Hobbes from the start, this may not be the book for you.  Simple solution for those who are unfamiliar—get yourselves to a bookstore and catch up on the series before delving into this wonderful back story of Newbury and Hobbes, agents of the crown and occult detectives.

B

On honesty and Book Reviews

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ~Oscar Wilde

Anyone who’s browsed through this blog may have noticed over time that most of the reviews I put up are generally laudatory.  There’s a reason for that.  What with a finite amount of time for both reading and writing, owing to, well…life, I generally finish books I like and stop reading those I don’t.  There are times however when I will finish a book that I’m not well disposed toward.  Usually, in that case it’s a book that a publisher has been kind enough to send me for review purposes, although there are times when I’ve bought a book and said to myself, “dammit, I paid for this…I’m damn well reading it!”  Having said that, I reserve the right to give an honest opinion of any book sent to me for review.  It may not be a recommendation that you read it, but anyone willing to send a review copy deserves the satisfaction of a review for their efforts, whether it be good or bad.

 As an example, awhile back Titan Books sent me a copy of Kim Newman’s JagoMy only other experience with Mr. Newman’s work was the delightfully wicked Anno Dracula, and on the basis of that experience, I was quite excited to read something else by someone I consider a superior genre (that genre being Horror) author.  Alas, while the premise was intriguing, it proved to be an overly long behemoth of a novel that suffered from a lack of brevity.  The same novel could have been told better in about half the space and by the time I was done reading it I was more relieved that it was over than excited about writing a review.  That review is still forthcoming, but it will be written.  Quid pro quo, remember?

Of the books this past year that I’ve finished and chosen not to review, John Scalzi’s Redshirts stands out as a novel that I a. bought, b. read to the end, and c. hated.  Yes, yes, I know he won a Hugo, but to me, it was little more than fluff, a derivative bit of fan fiction with several codas tacked on the end in a failed effort to appear “literary.”  As for the Hugo, well, it reinforced my opinion that some awards are more about good marketing or an author’s popularity.  Granted, there are many rave reviews of Redshirts on-line, so I’ll direct you to them, or maybe suggest that you read a much superior novel by the same author, Agent to the Stars.  As for Redshirts, the best I can say about it is that it didn’t take up a lot of my time.

So, what’s the point of this diatribe?  Well, basically this: I want to institute a slight format change to the site.  I want to let you, the reader, know where I, the reviewer, got my source material, whether it be a review copy from a publisher, off an advance review site such as NetGalley, or something I bought at the local bookstore. I’ll include this information before the body of the review. That way you’re forewarned of any biases in my reviewing.  I hope you don’t find any.

The Affinity Bridge–George Mann

The-Affinity-Bridge2“One thing is certain.  There doesn’t appear to be a simple solution to any of this.”  Veronica shrugged, folding her hands on her lap. 

Newbury smiled.  “There rarely is, my dear Miss Hobbes.  There rarely is.”

A few weeks ago, Titan Books offered advanced copies of George Mann’s The Executioner’s Heart for review.  While mine is in the mail, I thought I’d better play a little catch up, starting with The Affinity Bridge, first of the Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk mysteries.  Mann’s Steampunk adventures have been on my “intent to read” list for a while now, and this seemed a good opportunity to meet Sir Maurice Newbury and his plucky assistant, Ms. Veronica Hobbes, following their exploits around a reimagined London, where wondrous airships inhabit the skies, deadly revenants plague the streets, and murder is in the air—or at least the back streets of Whitechapel.

The year is 1901, and Victoria is still Queen due to the ministrations of her personal physician, who has artificially extended her lifespan through the wonders of both modern medicine and engineering.  Sir Maurice Newbury is one of her foremost Agents of the Crown.  An academic at the British Museum, dabbler in the Occult, and occasional laudanum addict, Newbury brings his inquisitive mind and deductive ability to any situation the Queen demands.  He also finds himself on loan to Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge from time to time, utilized on cases requiring a unique perspective.  At the moment, Newbury is consulting on The Case of the Glowing Policeman, wherein a series of murders in and around the Whitechapel district has baffled the regular police force.

Naturally, every good detective needs a stalwart companion, and in this case, the honour falls to Newbury’s newly hired assistant, the comely and intelligent Ms. Veronica Hobbes.  She’s not so much an assistant as she is a partner in his investigations—a modern woman determined to make her mark in a world dominated by men.  Her sharp wit and deductive skills compliment Newbury’s own, and her femininity puts those who might otherwise be reluctant to talk at ease.  Manners, after all.  She also has a few secrets that we as readers are privy to, but which Newbury will have to discover on his own.

The Affinity Bridge is no simple murder mystery—glowing policeman notwithstanding—for as an agent of the crown, it is Newbury’s duty to be at the beck and call of his monarch, and when an airship crashes in central London with numerous casualties, that call comes.  Her majesty is concerned, as the airship was piloted by one of Chapman and Villiers astounding automatons, artificial pilots claimed to be foolproof.  Was the accident proof that they aren’t, or was it foul play?  Their investigation will lead them into a diabolical tale of murder and mayhem through the fog ridden streets of London and eventually above, culminating in a flight above those same streets in an out of control airship.  Of course, there is the matter of the Affinity Engine, but since it bears directly on the resolution of several mysteries, you should be allowed to find out about it on your own.

Sir Maurice Newbury is an intriguing character.  Like the iconic Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of observation, yet slave to his appetites.  Whereas Holmes used cocaine recreationally in an attempt to alleviate his boredom between cases, Newbury uses laudanum in an attempt to forget the horrors he has seen, perhaps elicit a breakthrough when stymied by a case, or even to breach the boundaries between reality and the spirit world.  He sees his addiction as a necessary failing, yet propriety keeps him from either seeking help or acknowledging the weakness. Like Mr. Holmes, Newbury has some skill with both his fists or a blade, prerequisites of an agent of the crown, recalling the image of a Victorian Bond.  No word on his license to kill, however.  Newbury is also a dabbler and believer in the Occult, something Holmes was generally incredulous of.

Veronica Hobbes brings her own intrigue to the novel.  Seemingly just a feminine version of Dr. Watson to Newbury’s Holmes, she’s very much as canny as Newbury, and has her own secrets.  Hobbes is much more grounded than Newbury, and takes it upon herself both to protect his image and subtly keep him from harm when the laudanum takes over.  She’s a relatively strong female character, holding her own in a time and place where man’s chauvinism still runs deep.  I suspect as the series progresses, we’ll see Veronica come into her own as both an investigator and possible paramour for the brilliant, yet troubled Newbury. 

One cliché, or rather trope, of the Steampunk genre is the idea of the “Agent of the Crown. ”  Trope/cliché it may be, but it’s a rather fun idea that runs throughout Steampunk culture and honestly, never gets old.  Both Ulysses Quicksilver, of the remarkably wonderfulUlyssesQuicksilver Pax Britannia series by Jonathan Green, and Richard Francis Burton of Mark Hodder’s Adventures of Burton and Swinburne share the title with Sir Francis Newbury.  In fact, Green’s Quicksilver could realistically be described as a descendant of Maurice Newbury, or at least of the Universe which he inhabits, what with his introduction as an agent of Queen Victoria, who has managed to extend her reign through means mechanical and medicinal to the year 1997.   Alas, Ulysses Quicksilver’s story is for another time.

The Affinity Bridge is the first in a quartet of Steampunk novels by George Mann, and if the rest prove as delightful as the first, then I suggest a foray to your local bookstore in search of the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes.  Preferably by Steam Carriage.

A-

Bloggers note–While finishing my own draft of this review, I managed to breeze through Mann’s sophomore Newbury and Hobbes novel, The Osiris Ritual and if anything, it’s better than the first.