"From the Chelsea Bridge the airship works were clearly visible in the morning light as a series of immense red brick hangers, squat beside the shimmering Thames, fumes rising like smoke signals from a row of tall, broad chimneys. Steam hissed from the outlet pipes in great white plumes, whilst water gushed back into the river in a deluge of brown sludge. Huge airships were tethered to the roofs of the hangers, reminiscent of a row of children's balloons bobbing languorously in the breeze."
First off, for those of you are not familiar with the term may wonder what exactly is SteamPunk?
Steampunk is a sub-genre of Science Fiction. With most stories taken place in the late 1800s, early 1900s with the emphasis on the steam engine technology with occasionally some magic thrown in.
It also can be considered a sub-genre of Alternative Reality fiction. Since more often the not the technology with in the story surpasses anything that actually existed in the time period.
What many fans claim as the earliest if not the first Steampunk is the CBS television series The Wild Wild West that ran 1965 - 1969. But it was in 80s and 90s that Steampunk had it's heaviest following. Though after that it' s popularity declined but it never really went away.
That is why reading George Mann's first in the Newbury and Hobbes series, The Affinity Bridge was a real treat. Because this is pure Steampunk.
England, 1901. The Empire is prospering. Airships now able to reach the across the globe and to all corners of the Empire. Steam engine cars slowly replace horse driven carriages. But the greatest marvel is the automation's, mechanical like robots that can doing everything from simple functions(typing, butler duties and more) to more difficult things such as fly airships. And they are supposedly unable to make mistakes.
But under the surface all is not well with the realm.
In White Chapel there has been a series of murders where witnesses claim the specter of a blue glowing policeman who has come back from the dead to seek vengeance's, has strangled more than 40 people with no clues. Add to that the problems of the Plaque. A plaque that infects a person who turns to eat flesh of the living until the plaque runs it course and kills the infected all the while infecting those who survive the attack.
It here we meet Sir Maurice Newbury. An archaeologist with the British Museum but in reality is an agent for the Crown. Along with his able assistant Veronica Hobbes.
In the middle of assisting Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard with the deaths in White Chapel he gets an urgent message from the Queen. An Airship has crashed in Finsbury Park and sabotage is suspected. No Survivors.
On the scene it is discovered that there is indeed no survivors. Also the pilot is missing. What more it was not a human pilot but one of the automation's that was in control when the ship went down. And some how it has gone missing from the wreckage. Has the impossible happened? Did an automation make a mistake that cost 50 people their lives? Or are there more sinister deeds involved?
As Newbury and Hobbes's investigation will lead them to one of the biggest manufactures of airships and the automation's themselves. Following each lead it soon discovered that the crash and the deaths in White Chapel may be related and it's solution may effect the very foundation of the Crown.
There have been some reviewers that I have read that have compared Newbury and Hobbes to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Maybe because the time period that Holmes and Watson(late 1800s) are so close to the time period in the book Though the only real similarity to me is the use of logic and deductive reasoning in solving the case.
I rather like to compare them to John Steed(Patrick Macnee) and Emma Peel(Diana Rigg) of the British TV series The Avengers. Especially since the series was a mixture of the spy genre and sci-fi genre. Newbury does work for His Majesty as an agent as does Steed and Peel.
Comparisons aside, George Mann has written what I think of as classic Steampunk. It has everything good Steampunks should have, steam engine technology(and some other advances as well) a head of it what actually existed at the time, compelling mystery and engaging characters.
First the technology. Mann's 1901 London skies are fill with airships much like our modern skies are filled with airplane, going to all corners of the Earth. As the streets are slowly making way for steamed engined cars which the noise alone makes one ask if it the connivance of speed is worth it at times. Then there are the automations. Who can be programed(by a punch card reader much like the early forms of computers) to perform a wide variety of function from the menial to more difficult tasks. Even medicine as slightly more advance to where blood transfusion are more common as is knowledge of actual healing properties of plants to even a bizarre form of a life support system which feeds air into the lungs via huge bellows.
The mystery itself is an engaging one. Between the murders in White Chapel and airship crash Mann manages to keep you guessing right to the end. It has enough twist and turns with a few surprises to make it a fun read for those who love mysteries.
As for the characters, well Newbury and Hobbes are a real treat to read. As I mention above they remind of Steed and Peel though less tongue and cheek as they were. But both are quite intelligent with out being arrogant(as sometimes Holmes can be). They also compliment each other quite well. Newbury is fascinated with the new technology and it Hobbes that reminds not to let that fascination cloud his judgement in the investigation. But she isn't just an assistant taking notes. Newbury relies on her observations and ability to talk to people to gather facts so she is right there in the thick of the investigation looking for clues that he might have missed.
But as we learn more about these two we find that both have secrets which may not only effect the case but put their very lives at risk.
Another thing I have read in a few reviews that the book takes a little long to get the end of the mystery. It is true the action doesn't really pick up near the end but this being the first in a series I can understand why. When creating a new universe(or series) the first book has to set up so much with both the setting and characters. But Mann more than makes up for with characterization. Learning who these people are as the world around them changes at what appears to a breakneck speed is part of what makes this such a fun read. As I mentioned in a previous blog that often in science fiction the writer can focus too much on the science and forget the real heart of the story is it's people.
Between the first and last page Affinity Bridge is a fun book for lovers of Steampunk, sci-fi in general and those who love a good fun mysteries. Mann has set up a world that makes one want to return and learn more about it's inhabitants. And really you can't for anything more from a book if you ask me.