First Published: 2008
Pages: 350 (Paperback)
Series: Newbury & Hobbes #1
Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution.
Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where ghostly policemen haunt the fog-laden alleyways of Whitechapel, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where Sir Maurice Newbury , Gentleman Investigator for the Crown, works tirelessly to protect the Empire from her foes.
When an airship crashes in mysterious circumstances, Sir Maurice and his recently appointed assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes are called in to investigate. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is baffled by a spate of grisly murders and a terrifying plague ravaging the slums of the city.
So begins an adventure quite unlike any other, a thrilling steampunk mystery and the first in the series of Newbury & Hobbes investigations.
This book has all the ingredients for a fun steampunk romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously: zombies, automatons, airships, a ghostly murderer, Queen Victoria being kept alive by crazy steampunk science! Unfortunately, somewhere in the putting all those elements it all went horribly, horribly wrong. The plot is there, but my god, these are the blandest flattest characters I’ve read in a long long time. The dialogue is clunky and sometimes painful, oscillating between modern and exaggeratedly faux-victorian. The narrative can’t decide if it’s third person limited or third person omniscient, flicking between character perspectives randomly for a paragraph or two with no warning before flicking back… It’s not good writing. And that’s a shame because the plot, clichéd and predictable though it might be, would have been fun otherwise. There’s even a germ of fun to be found in the basic characters of Newbury and Hobbes but that is quickly extinguished by their poor execution.
Sir Maurice Newbury is rich, clever, devilishly handsome, rich, clever, and boring. He’s a master of the occult (apparently, we see very little actual occult happenings in this book) and a not-so-secret agent of the crown who receives private correspondence and audiences with the most bland portrayal of Queen Victoria I’ve ever read (and this despite her being kept alive by a steampunk oxygen tank wheelchair!). He also has the ridiculous skill of being able to power his way through fights despite all previous injuries, popping stitches, and common sense. In the final portion of the book he sustains life threatening injuries, only to get through three (THREE!) intense fight/chase scenes the very next day. There is only so much ‘steampunk medical science’ will excuse, and that goes far beyond it.
The other ‘central character’, Veronica Hobbes basically exists so that there is a female character. She does very little, occasionally mentions that women aren’t treated very well (but only in her interior monologue, never out loud), and is introduced by happily making tea for Newbury without argument when he mistakes her for his secretary. She judges other women (‘that sort of women’) after thirty seconds friendly conversation, and her internal monologue dehumanises people with mental health issues to little more than animals whenever she visits her sister in the asylum (who is of course, perfectly sane and only cursed with supernatural visions). If it wasn’t for the men in the story constantly mentioning how ‘remarkable’ she is, I really would not know it. And Newbury’s constant praise of her almost makes me thing she must have done something truly amazing in the three weeks he’s known her before the book starts, because the text gives him no reason to find her extraordinary. The final stinger about her in the epilogue is probably meant to be shocking, but she’s been so bland for the rest of the book that it’s hard to summon up the energy to care.
Also they are clearly headed towards a romance (or at least unresolved sexual tension) between these two and the age difference (‘early twenties’ to ‘almost forty’), professional relationship, and power imbalance make that pretty gross.
Dialogue, as I said, was clunky. The whole book can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be modern or Victorian in its sensibilities. The status of women and the propriety of Hobbes and Newbury working together seems to change even from scene to scene, sometimes people won’t bat an eyelid, other times they suddenly remember that women are meant to be delicate. It’s all very odd. Writing, also poor.One paragraph you’ll be reading Newbury’s thoughts, next you’ve somehow segued into Hobbes’ inner monologue, then one of them will make an ‘obvious‘ yet ridiculously specific observation about the person they’re talking to based on a single vague look (‘…it was clear she was a person of warmth and integrity‘), and then it will move on to the perspective of Newbury’s policeman best friend for a moment, before at last returning to Newbury. It’s not so much confusing as utterly baffling – why would anyone write a book like that?
So yeah…what should have been a fun adventure turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Steampunk without any of the punk. Zombies, and automatons, and airships, oh my! But don’t expect anything remotely subversive or anti-establishment. A serviceable story peopled by flat mary-sues.
Probably won’t pick up the sequels.