The Short Version: Sir Maurice Newbury has fallen prey to a debilitating opium addiction – but when Sir Charles and Veronica pull him out of a squalid opium den to investigate a strange murder, he begins to pull himself together. Just in time, too, as the fate of the entire British Empire may well rest upon his and Ms. Hobbes’ shoulders – for the Bastian Society is preparing for something awful…
The Review: Now this alone is a reason to read the first two books. This is not to say that those were bad – at all. But this book is exceptional compared to either of them. For one thing, our characters are not only fully formed at this point but we’ve fast-forwarded several months from the end of The Osiris Ritual and catch up with our heroes after having fallen a bit from grace. Newbury, specifically: he’s a completely addicted mess when we catch up with him at the outset. Indeed, if I have any complaint with this novel, it is that he cleans up a little too fast – although, having never gone through any sort of serious-drug-withdrawal, I can’t say for sure.
This said, it’s a good thing he does get his act together (relatively speaking, mind you) as quickly as he does: the stakes have never been higher. What appears to be a simple, albeit strange, case of a dead thief and his doppelgänger turns into something far more deadly very quickly. Every single character, major or supporting, feels threatened here: Veronica’s sister Amelia is being experimented on, Sir Charles is attacked, the Queen survives an assassination attempt, and I suppose it goes without saying that Newbury and Hobbes both have quite close scrapes – several of them, in fact. It makes for some terribly exciting reading.
Indeed, I found that this book cohered far better than the first two as well. The case didn’t seem terribly exciting at the outset – something more suited for a short story, I originally mused – but by the time our heroes attempt a daring break-in at the Bastion Society, the fuse has been lit and we are rocketing towards whatever explosive conclusion we’re inevitably bound for. And along the way, Mann raises some interesting questions about human nature and the societies we’ve built for ourselves. Oh, sure, all three books delve into the cost of progress: Newbury’s opium addiction, the twisted machinations of Chapman and Villiers, Dr. Fabian’s machine to keep the Queen alive, even Aubrey Knox’s desire for eternal life – these are all examples of people trying to outstrip the bonds of their humanity. But the thing is, when we do that, we trade away some of that very humanity – and so then what are we left with?
It’s a terrible question on a micro level – that is, the level of the individual. Now imagine it at a macro level – imagine it as applied to the British Empire. Something is rotten in the state of England and I fear for the world Mann is creating for us here. Both Newbury and Hobbes are left, at the end of this novel, questioning everything they have known – and trusting no one save each other. Still, I find that bit – “save each other” – to be reassuring. These two are a pair for any and every season and I believe that if they cannot save the Empire, at the very least they can save humanity.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon, too. Amelia’s final premonitions, not to mention Newbury’s strange opium-dreams, are rather worrisome. An “executioner” is coming – a clear shout to the next book, the first in the second N&H trilogy – and with her comes all manner of awful things.
Still, if Mann’s writing it, it’ll be damned fun to watch the world burn.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. A fitting conclusion to this initial N&H trilogy – and the best thing I’ve read of Mann’s thus far. It’s a powerful book, barreling ahead without sacrificing much of the character development and world-building we’ve come to appreciate. I cannot wait to see what comes next – and I hope it’ll only be bigger, better, and stronger than this excellent third book.