The Short Version: Sir Maurice Newbury, agent of the Crown, is trying to help the head of Scotland Yard with a mysterious glowing policeman when he’s summoned to Buckingham Palace. The Queen (Victoria) tasks him with discovering the cause of an airship crash – a case that pits him and his bold & able assistant, Veronica Hobbes, against foes human, clockwork, and perhaps something else entirely…
The Review: I forget how it was that I stumbled upon George Mann’s delightful Newbury & Hobbes series several years ago. It was before I went to London, I’m almost sure of it – or at least it was right around that time. His old publisher, Snowbooks, had done some delightful special edition slipcase hardcovers for the first two books and naturally I’d picked those up. But when the third book hit a delay and the publisher hit some troubles, I let my attention to the series slip away. When the fourth was published earlier this year, the series flashed across my radar again – and I went out and picked up all four in their fetching (and, honestly, even prettier) US hardcovers, with the intention of tackling all four in a row.
Both Newbury and Hobbes, as characters, burst fully formed onto the reader’s consciousness as soon as they’re introduced in this first book. I think that might, in fact, be the most delightful thing about the series: how vivid it all is. Oh, you know what you’re getting into – there are, no one can deny, significant echoes of another Victorian-era detective, especially the recent Guy Ritchie/RDJ incarnation. But you can’t let that bother you: Sir Maurice is a different man from our Sherlock and the circumstances of this London are quite different as well.
It’s a steampunk/clockwork universe – steam-powered carriages, airships, and clockwork automata all play a major role in this first novel. Queen Victoria is kept alive through a disturbing combination of machines and methods, turning her into something altogether more frightening than she already was. There’s a zombie-esque plague trickling back from India. Sir Maurice dabbles in the dark arts and a young girl has terrible prescient visions. It’s a distinct and original combination of things we’ve all seen before – and the end result is something downright page-turning.
If there’s any fault in this first N&H novel, it’s that the mystery takes something of a backseat. Or, no, that’s not quite right – I’m just not sure how to explain it properly otherwise. There are several adventures and harrowing scrapes, all of which are interesting and fascinating, but they all feel in one way or another vaguely tenuously connected to the thing or things Sir Maurice is supposed to be investigating. One of the best sequences in the book, a fog-shrouded battle with several revenants, does little to actually advance the cases but instead serves to draw us closer to these fabulous characters. I’m not complaining, you see – but I’m just thinking that the main plot sometimes takes a backseat to the development of the world and its characters.
This is not to say that the plot is nonexistent, of course. There are several cases happening at once – including one that’s shrugged off and given short shrift until a happy circumstance brings it all together. Ordinarily, I might’ve found that a cheap out: a sudden surprise at the end of the novel that wraps it all up, preferably told over brandy by a fire. But even that sentence there, that explains it: the telling over brandy by a fire is rather the point. That’s the kind of story you’re reading here, with all of the suspensions of disbelief that are sometimes required. You’re here for the dashing Sir Maurice and the lovely Miss Hobbes – and the strangeness of the world that Mr. Mann is presenting us. Hopefully, the cases will grow stronger as their casebook expands.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Let yourself read with a British accent. Go on, you know you want to. Imagine the version that you’re filming in your head, which is obviously way better than any version anyone else could film. Enjoy the fights, the curiosities, the vague hints of mysticism that (spoilers) are only going to get heavier from here on out. And most importantly, doff your hat towards Sir Maurice and Miss Hobbes: you never know when they’re going to save your lives and the lives of the whole Empire.
It’s the right sort of jaunt for this Anglophile – damned fun and deeply memorable.