Steampunk is maturing into a thoroughly established sub-genre with genuine strength and depth – and the proof of that is the appearance last year of this offering.
London’s geniuses are being picked off by a vicious killer, and Emma Bannon, a sorceress in the service of the Empire, must protect the next target, Archibald Clare. Unfortunately he’s more interested in solving the mystery of the murders than staying alive… In a world where illogical magic has turned the industrial revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare will face dark sorcery, cannon fire, high treason and the vexing problem of reliably finding hansom cabs in the city.
This book hits the ground running. Emma Bannon has a dark, difficult past and Saintcrow doesn’t bother filling us in on all the high jinx she has previously got up to – just alludes to it from time to time. Which is fine by me. She is a sorceress at the top of the pile, wealthy and established, and very loyal to Queen Victrix, the young queen who also embodies the ancient force of Britannia. To have that much reach and become so powerful in such a world, she is bound to have trodden on feet and knocked about a bit. She is also a protagonist in – hopefully – a reasonably long-running series. Saintcrow can go one of two ways – start with her as a raw apprentice and take her on a journey of steadily growing in power (sound familiar?) – or she can drop us into her career at its zenith where she will be fighting big scary stuff and teetering constantly on the edge of burnout. Given the plethora of well-written series that have taken the former option, I am very comfortable that Saintcrow has chosen the other course. And that she doesn’t choose to chart Bannon’s previous intrigues with her readership – the slight mystery and threat surrounding her makes her all the more alluring.
Archibald Clare also has a murky past. As a mentath, he is borderline high-functioning autistic and leaves geniuses trailing in the dust. He is also allergic to magic on the grounds that it is entirely illogical. So the relationship between himself and Bannon is innately tense. Refreshingly, there is no romance between them. I’d like to think it stays that way – their professional relationship is interesting enough and Bannon has her own way of seeking comfort. Lucky girl!
The world is detailed and engrossing – I found some of her descriptions owed more than a touch to Dickens – but at no time did the backdrop impede the narrative pace that clipped along at the usual headlong charge that seems to be the default in steampunk. I loved it. Saintcrow brings to the genre the taut, coiled-spring tension I normally see in urban fantasy and as soon as I finished this book, I cast around for the sequel, The Red Plague Affair, which I shall add to my special Christmas stockingful of particular treats for the festive holiday.