Having previously read George Mann’s Ghost of Manhattan (slightly disappointing, review here) and discovering that I had indeed a keen interest in steampunk of late, I decided to give Mann another go, this time with the first of his Newbury & Hobbes Investigations, The Affinity Bridge. Much stronger than Ghost of Manhattan, this book was actually near perfect in its depiction of a steampunk London and in its telling of a compelling mystery. The Affinity Bridge falls firmly in the Victorian-London-Steampunk category with the almost obligatory gentleman adventurer/investigator/what have you and his sidekick, so there wasn’t anything too new and original to discover, yet it was an entertaining and convincing read all the same.
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 programed 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 is ravaging the slums of the city.
Earlier this year Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack became sort of a benchmark for me by which to judge all other steampunk books, and particularly those set in the sane time period or thereabouts. Yes, I know that’s not exactly fair, but that’s how it is. Inevitably comparing The Affinity Bridge to it as I was reading, I quickly realized just how many parallels can be drawn from book to book. It was astounding. But it didn’t bother me one bit.
Originality is usually a key factor for most people when deciding whether a book is good or not, except when the book manages, despite no obvious innovation, to captivate and entertain the reader in a way that it doesn’t matter that their not being thrown new ideas at. I think that it is in this category of books that these Victorian Steampunks fall. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Affinity Bridge certainly do, and the sub-genre in general seems pretty inclined towards this disposition.
But let’s get back to The Affinity Bridge individually, shall we? Mann brings forward a well-crafted vision of London in a steampunk world, a world where Queen Victoria’s life is being sustained and extended by machines and is still alive past when history tells us she should have died. And also this is a world where the making of automatons has been perfected to a point where they can render useful service in menial tasks or in piloting airships. Roaming this landscape is the characteristic Sir Maurice Newbury, currently charged with helping Scotland Yard as an investigator by the Queen herself.
There’s no denying that Mann can spin a good mystery. Sure I could guess at the general form of the reveal quite a ways off, but the journey there - full of action, twists, turns and pitfalls - was well worth it. The characters, especially the mysterious Miss Hobbes, suffer a certain lack of even characterization though since most are largely two dimensional it is sometimes hard to notice. Newbury, despite being the much stereotyped Gentleman Investigator, manages to be the most humane of the characters with real flaws and a hint of significant backstory - which unfortunately is kept from us in this first novel.
I can therefore confidently say that The Affinity Bridge is another good read for any steampunk fans out there. Though if you are a true steampunk lover you’ll probably have read this long before me, most likely in 2008 when it first came out. Once you’ve read this first Newbury & Hobbes Investigation, move on to the next, The Osiris Ritual, and after that The Immortality Engine. I too will be moving on with certainty. Gotta love steampunk!
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
George Mann's Website: http://georgemann.wordpress.com/
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