Steampunk has been know - and celebrated - for it’s fun-oriented nature. I’ve often seen it as nothing other than an excuse to tinker further with Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ inventions, the chance to explore an alternate version of our past, and usually as a means of rekindling the great sense of wonder and adventure found in the tales of those previously mentioned masters. In his first two ‘Newbury & Hobbes Investigations’ Mann offered us ever so slightly shallow - if extremely pleasant - renderings of those ambitions, but with his latest, The Immorality Engine, he chooses to delve deeper into his characters, rendering a novel that retains all the fun of its predecessors while gaining unprecedented depth.
Sir Maurice Newbury and his feisty sidekick Veronica Hobbes are called on to investigate a wave of crimes identical to those commuted by a murderer who the police have just found dead. Their enquiries lead them to the Bastian Society, and personal physician to Queen Victoria, Dr. Lucius Fabian. Why is he so interested in Veronica’s sister Amelia, and can Newbury and Veronica help free her from a terrible fare as a slave to the Empire?
In this third installment, Mann teases us from the very first chapter with significant plot details to come sometime down the line before he jumps back seven days prior to those events to tell the ‘how’ of it all and, more importantly, to introduce the latest mystery facing Sir Maurice Newbury. For the next hundred pages we must unfortunately contend with a mild pace and plodding narrative. This being our third time joining up with Newbury, Hobbes & Co. you would expect things to move a bit quicker, we have after all met these people before yet things drag on a bit without much happening.
Around the one hundred page mark, things take a turn for the better and Mann throws at us fistfuls of danger and mystery just as the pace picks up and settles into that of yet another terrific steampunk romp. The first two books already demonstrated that Mann strong suit isn’t the complexity of his investigations, yet the one Newbury works his way through in The Immorality Engine is ever so slightly more fulfilling.
This, honestly, may be partly due to the fact that the investigation itself, despite this being a ‘Newbury & Hobbes Investigation’ gets moved to the side a bit. Much like in The Osiris Ritual, what begins as a genuinely baffling mystery quickly winds down to a predictable chain of events as too much condemning evidence is revealed too quickly. The investigation is still an integral part of the novel, but there’s an added political aspect - only superficially introduced in the previous book - which takes center change near the half-way mark.
One particularly noteworthy change in this third volume is the increased attention to characters and their emotional development, leading turn to a story with also greater depth. Gone is the fun yet ultimately meaningless tale of The Affinity Bridge - The Immorality Engine, as its title suggests, delves into questions of loyalty and love and looks at the difficulty of making decisions involving either (or conflicts between both, as is the case in this novel). Mann’s greater interest in his own characters means they are no longer rigid set pieces moved around for the sake of plot, they now form the true core of the story. After two - retrospectively - mediocre attempts, Mann hits his stride and shows us what he’s truly capable of.
Now, Newbury and Veronica operate in a Victorian England in which the events and decisions have a feasible chance of actually affecting them beyond the odd wound, quickly to be repaired by ‘the Fixer.’ Our two main characters’ evolving view of Queen Victoria force them to question the valor of duties they’re called to fulfill in her service. The fun factor is still very much present. We’re served a dish that contains copious amounts of steampunk goodness: steam-powered exoskeletons, clockwork horses and the steampunk equivalent of rocket launchers all play their part in some thoroughly thrilling action sequences. Worth a mention, also, is the continuing development of the romantic relationship between Newbury and Veronica. It’s been growing slowly but now it’s evolution is accelerating, and it’s a pure joy to see.
Going forwards, I can’t help but feel anything but excitement and great anticipation for the fourth ‘Newbury & Hobbes Investigation’ because it finally seems like this is a series we can grade highly while taking it seriously. It was too easy before to downplay the first two books’ faults because it was just a fun-oriented series that had no greater aims. For the most part, Mann is still writing that, but the apparent switch he’s made only that to writing that with an ounce of more thoughtful characterization has had a huge impact on my enjoyment of this novel. The Immorality Engine, therefore, is highly recommended. It was released in the UK in June, and will appear on American shelves, from Tor Books, in September.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
George Mann's Website: http://georgemann.wordpress.com/
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