The Short Version: Things in Newbury & Hobbes’ England have only gotten worse. Newbury is helping Veronica’s sister with her seizures and visions but at a dreadful cost, the Prince of Wales is demanding Newbury’s services, and a strange “Executioner” is murdering agents of the Crown. Nothing is as it seems in this fourth N&H adventure – and nothing will ever be the same.
The Review: Wow. Just, holy wow. I wrote that I enjoyed The Immorality Engine more than its predecessors – but that entire trilogy looks haphazard and mediocre when compared to this book. Perhaps it was Mann’s time away from the series, perhaps it was the vigor of a renewed contract – perhaps it was just a really good author hitting all of his marks. I don’t particularly know, but I do know that this book is excellent.
For one thing, it is darker. Everything about it is darker – not only that but the stakes are higher, our heroes (and I include Sir Charles, as a sort of modern-Lestrade-ian secondary hero) have more at stake and risk much more, and the adventure is far stronger in construction. The idea of agents moving against Queen Victoria makes sense. This isn’t a spoiler, not to my mind anyway, because a) there was an assassination attempt in the last book and b) she’s not a terribly nice person and c) she’s living an abominably long life. It’s only natural. But this ruthless killer is terrifying because no one seems to know who or why for the longest time – and that makes for excitement. The idea that all three of our major heroes are targets and yet the fact that they’re at a loss… INSTANT STAKES-RAISE!
What’s more, our heroes have been busy during their absence. Mann is a relentless tease, dropping asides and commentary about this case or that case – some of which even have an impact on the present, like these shenanigans with a certain Cabal (no not that Cabal, although, wouldn’t that be fun) that have resulted in at least two assassination attempts against Newbury. They also provoke one of the funniest lines in the whole book, but that’s neither here nor there. Aside from that, Newbury has delved deeper into the occult and things in general seem a little more mysterious and supernatural than they have previously – it’s as though my desires have been acknowledged, so thank you for unknowingly doing what I wanted, Mr. Mann.
The relationship between Newbury and Veronica is given a bit of a short shrift here, which is… not disappointing but surprising, considering how it had progressed by the end of the last novel. Their affections are apparently a well-kept secret but I don’t get the sense that much has happened since that kiss. Is that just how things were in Victorian days? I know Sir Maurice is showing his love for her in other ways, but still – you’d think there’d’ve been at least a date or two.
I realize that these cases could be seen as a peculiar kind of dating. And so, yeah, okay, I take your point.
What’s most interesting about this book is how Mann is starting to set up a post-Victorian world. We hear, for the first time, of the Kaiser starting to rumble on the Continent. We see Prince Albert Edward, the then-Prince of Wales, starting to root about for power – at a time when, in the real world, he would’ve been two years into his reign already. The world is changing at a blistering pace, even though it has only been about 18 months since the series started. Mann captures that relentless push of technology and progress in a way that makes it eerily similar to our modern state, which is something I hadn’t previously considered about these novels or about the time period in general. But now that I’ve thought it, I can’t seem to unthink it – we live in as dynamic and uncertain a time as they did at the turn of that last century. Mann’s just using a complete fiction to poke your mind a bit and see if it doesn’t recognize a few things.
I should speak briefly, although without spoiling anything, to the ending: it’s a shocker. It’s a “whoa, holy shit” kind of moment – and then he sets up the next book in perfect style, giving us a little tease that will hopefully lead right into book 5, The Revenant Express. Too bad that one hasn’t been published yet and I can’t burn through it as I have the first four over the last week.
Rating: 5 out of 5. To my mind, this is a perfect example of this type of novel. It’s inventive, the characters are engaging, the writing is punchy, the plot is full of twists and turns, there’s a healthy dose of the macabre and the supernatural, and the whole thing grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let up from page one. Any issues you might’ve had with the series will be far-gone by the time you finish this book, I can assure you, readers – just give it the time and let the world be built before you. Then you can see just how talented and playful Mann can be: this is a novel fully-inhabited.