The Short Version: An Egyptian mummy is unveiled during a high-society gala in London, setting off a chain of brutal murders. Meanwhile, girls have been disappearing around the country in the wake of a magician’s tour. Newbury and Hobbes are on these respective cases, as well as trying to track a rogue agent – and meanwhile all signs point to a dangerous villain from the Empire’s past having resurfaced…
The Review: I had forgotten, I guess, just how crazy everyone was for Egypt back in turn-of-the-century England. Gail Carriger’s excellent Parasol Protectorate series features an Egypt-based plot and even Anne Rice’s vampires have an Egyptian genesis. I myself wanted to be an Egyptologist once – but I had issues with the cat thing as I grew up. Not a huge fan of cats.
This second novel in the Newbury & Hobbes series feels like Mann’s pastiche of an old-school, Jonny Gossamer-esque mysteries. There are two cases, seemingly unrelated… until you realize they’re actually irrevocably connected. Despite the fact that the two cases’ connection seems tenuous at best (that is, how did Knox and the magician team up / why?), there was a real joy in seeing Newbury and Hobbes striking off boldly on their own only to come together at the end and combine their powers. It allowed each of them to take some time in the spotlight, reminding readers that this is – in fact – a Newbury AND Hobbes investigation: they are a team.
I will say that the ultimate mastermind of the plot seemed to get a short shrift here. He’s barely introduced and kept mostly behind the scenes, with the exception of one truly bravura duel with Newbury, and then ushered offstage almost before we’ve had time to understand his threat. It is one thing to be told that he is a sick, twisted man – and another to come to understand it for ourselves. One minor character’s death (not saying which minor character) does help us along the way – but I felt like there was a whole world to Aubrey Knox that we never really got to see. And that saddens me. Here’s hoping he retains a Moriarty-esque influence over later N&H stories….
I’m also interested in Mann delving further into the supernatural of these stories. We hear about Knox’s work with the occult and see a bit of Newbury’s interest – but we don’t get a real sense of what this means (other than, I’d say, in the aforementioned minor character death). Instead, we’re seeing machinery and clockwork as the otherworldly force most at play in this universe – and while that’s a completely valid choice, there seems to be a little pull in Mann’s writing towards the truly fantastical. Perhaps some of the N&H short stories will deal with these more mysterious cases that are sometimes mentioned, especially those involving ghosts and hauntings.
Rating: 4 out of 5. All in all, though, this book feels a bit like the Empire Strikes Back of the series. I know that Mann had originally discussed this series as a trilogy, before getting his extended contract – and you get that sense of this being “part 2 of 3”. The first book stands on its own, establishes the characters, sets up a few farther-reaching things but mostly feels self-contained. This book has more action, more character development, and while the individual mysteries of the novel are self-contained, there are several strands of plot that feel unresolved: Newbury’s opium addiction, the curious case of Ms. Hobbes’ sister, and Newbury’s discovery of Ms. Hobbes’ true loyalties. There’s even a general sense that the Queen’s plans for all of our heroes may be more nefarious than we could imagine – a hint, really, not much more, but a hint nonetheless. But to say that this book propels you into the next almost without stopping is an understatement: any weaknesses in story development (which mostly feel like things that were trimmed for space but would’ve given more color and life to the novel as a whole) can be forgiven for the exceptional adventures and still-vivid world Mann has created for us.