Friday, 29 July 2011

The Immorality Engine - George Mann (2011)

You know what's particularly annoying about most alternate Britains, especially steampunk ones? It's the fact that the author seems far too often to think that all that's required is to stick a Zeppelin or two in the sky and allude to brass instruments a lot and that means he's done his job. The flip-side of this overly lazy approach is no better either: the type of book which doesn't really have a story as such, just a series of carefully constructed non-electronic machines, described in lovingly autistic detail, with a plot of sorts hazily sketched in between clockwork robots and steam powered spaceships, like an inconvenient addendum.

So, the fact that George Mann's alternate England is one where the machinery complements rather than swamps the story puts him ahead of the game from page one. This world is one where steam-driven machinery is everywhere, but only mentioned when the exploits of Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes require it. The same goes for the Revenant (for which, basically, read 'zombie') plague which lay at the core of the first N&H book. There are still revenants wandering about London, but they remain in the background, because they're not needed in this book. Miss Hobbes may mention a zeppelin on the horizon in passing, but she feels no need to delineate the exact mix of hydrogen to helium required to make it float, or to give us a potted alternate history of flying machines. Like the maps at the beginning of epic fantasy novels, such concerns have their place, but are only of fleeting interest - they might provide what marketeers refer to as Added Value, but they're not the reason for purchase.

As a result, Mann's London feels like a real place, with a real (if different) history and a cast of real (if different) people, who step forward and back into and out of the narrative when the situation requires and not simply to show how clever the author can be,

Queen Victoria in this world, for example, has existed since the first novel as a malevolent spider at the centre of a web of tubes and coils, piping and pumps, all designed to artificially extend her life. In The Immorality Engine she achieves centre stage while rarely actually appearing as it becomes crystal clear that everything which has happened to date is a consequence of her altogether selfish machinations. Newbury and Hobbes, meanwhile, continue their will-they, won't-they dance round one another and Charles Bainbridge (in many ways my favourite character in the series) continues to struggle between what he'd like to be true and what evidently and actually is.

On which subject, this book successfully addresses one minor failing (if you can call it that) of the earlier books. There's far more emotional depth to the characters here than before. There was always a sneaking suspicion in the two earlier novels that Newbury and Hobbes' mutual attraction was more a matter of authorial fiat than growing naturally from two characters in real sympathy with one another, but here Mann treats the relationship (and that between the two and Bainbridge) with a wonderfully deft touch. That Newbury's opium addiction, initially obviously reminiscent of Holmes' cocaine habit, is overcome under Miss Hobbes' ministrations is refreshing in itself, as it sets Newbury apart from that too famous detective. Better still, however, towards the end of the book it seems possible that Newbury will have to re-addict himself for the good of Miss Hobbes and her ailing sister. Layers pile upon layers in a relationship which could easily have appeared artificial until it's clear that Mann intended this slow growth in affection all along.

Don't be fooled however; this is not a novel of romance only. Mann is one of the best writers of action sequences in any genre, and he never fails to impress here, with several set pieces which glory in quick shifts of perspective, sudden bursts of activity and sundry feats of derring-do. Bainbridge under attack from rockets and ruffians; robotic horses at the charge; and more than one mechanical spider armed with razor sharp blades - Mann treats the reader to all this and more with apparently effortless skill.

Like Paul Magrs' Brenda and Effie series or George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, this is a book which can be read as a standalone or, more profitably, as one in a series of increasingly impressive volumes. If you haven't tried any Newbury and Hobbes yet, this is the perfect time to jump on, while the series is still young.

Trust me, this is a series that could run and run...

[Oh, btw, I get thanked in the acknowledgements but that doesn't make me any more of a fan of the book - it's a chicken and egg thing. If I didn't think it was a great series, I wouldn't have been a proof-reader and so wouldn't appear in the acknowledgements!]

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