Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review - George Mann's The Affinity Bridge

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann
Published by: Tor
Publication Date: July 1st, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Queen Victoria should have died at the turn of 1901, but in November of that year Victoria lives still via machines, past her time on this earth, preserved as ruler. Sir Maurice Newbury works as an "investigator for the crown" for this indomitable woman who plans to outwit death, by any means necessary, technological or otherwise. While he works at the British Museum, his job there is little more then a cover. Or as Newbury and his clever assistant Victoria Hobbes would say, the museum is there to mark the time between their interesting adventures. Luckily this is a time when they aren't needed at the museum as Queen Victoria has several mysterious situations at present that need Newbury's expertise. There is a plague of revenants, zombie like corpses attacking people in the fog, a string of deaths in Whitechapel that are linked to a mysterious glowing policeman, but most importantly, a crashed airship that had a minor royal on board and among the lists of the dead, a list that is suspiciously missing a pilot. While Newbury longs to find a satisfying conclusion to the murders in Whitechapel and help Scotland Yard and his copper friend Sir Charles Bainbridge, Victoria has insisted that the crash of The Lady Armitage comes before everything else.

Going to the company that made The Lady Armitage, Chapman and Villiers, the duo discover that the company has been expanding beyond their regular line of airships to encompass Automatons. Villiers is a scientist who left France under a cloud because of his unorthodox experimentations, but Newbury can not help marvelling at the work shown to them. They have created simulated life. A simulated life that coincidentally may be responsible for the disastrous air crash, no matter Chapman and Villiers's denials. The closer Victoria and Newbury get to the answers, the more danger they are in. Sir Maurice needs help from "The Fixer" on more then one occasion to keep himself alive at all. Add the ubiquitous presence of the unnerving Automatons everywhere and then throw in a dash of an insane asylum and a laudanum addiction and you can see it's going to be a miracle if they can solve the cases and keep themselves alive.

It is rare that I ever bother to write a second review of a book, one and done is usually my motto. But then there's the other side of me, the control freak which knows that my reviewing style has changed over time. To have a George Mann theme month and just hit you with an old review, a review that feels like it was written out of time (and yes, I did "adapt" the recap), well, that's just not the done thing. Yet it's not just to appease my controlling nature that I re-review it. The Affinity Bridge is one of those elusive books that are worthy of further discussion. Upon re-reading there are so many more layers and plot points that mean something new and different. You see things you missed the first time around, and overall, while the book was just as good, if not better then the first time, it's for a whole new slew of reasons. Things that I loved previously annoyed me, while things I overlooked came forward to take the hole in my heart. George Mann to me is the apotheosis of Steampunk. He has defined this genre for me with a perfect balancing of Britishness, technology, romance, storytelling, and mystery.

To get at the heart of why this book is so seminal to me I really had to think about what continually draws me back to the Victorian era. The truth is it isn't the stuff of period dramas. It isn't the clothes, it isn't the bygone days of culture and manners. I know that might come as a shock, being the lover of miniseries and historical literature that I am. But what truly fascinates me about this time period is the danger, the menace lurking in the fog, and Jack the Ripper. Even as a teenager I had a love of the lurid, the Penny Dreadful, the danger coupled with the romance of another time. A world of manners coupled with skulduggery. The two sides of the coin, if you will, the refinement living alongside the heinous. If I had the ability to time travel I would totally use it just to solve the unsolvable and find out who really was Jack the Ripper. I'd probably use my power on other unsolved cases, but Jack the Ripper, the impact on society to this day is amazing. I can not count the number of interpretations that I have read, watched, and played over the years. Yes, I did play a Sherlock Holmes Jack the Ripper video game. I never won it, but I remember scraping Macassar oil off a door and analyzing it in the lab at 221B Baker Street.

Reading The Affinity Bridge while watching Whitechapel on the side made me have this eureka moment revealing myself to myself in all it's depravity. I finally got it. The murderers, the pickpockets, the thieves, all being routed out by the erstwhile detectives, I thrive on this. I search out that darker aspect in Victorian crime. I want stories worthy of the legend of Jack the Ripper, and that is what George delivers. The glowing policeman coming out of the darkness to revenge his death, seriously, chills. The revenants being a plague on the slums wherein any patch of fog could mean, not just your death, but a horrid and painful demise of being turned into an abomination, a great twist on zombies. This book is a Penny Dreadful for a modern sensibility. Not just relying on a Jack the Ripper type character, but expanding the horror to include the supernatural, the occult, and most terrifying of all, the rapid advancement of technology. These Automatons are literally the stuff of my nightmares, part Sonny from I Robot, part Cylon, and all the horror I never really felt for the Cybermen rolled into one.

But The Affinity Bridge couples this Victorian doom and gloom with a lighter almost campy air. During my re-reading of the book I almost felt as if Newbury was too British. Too much a parody of a man who will do anything for king and country. How does this lead to a positive you might be asking yourself right about now, well, I'm getting to it. The partnership of Newbury and Hobbes is very much reminiscent of that of John Steed and Emma Peel. This book is all the campy fun of a Victorian series of The Avengers, and no, not The Avengers with Loki. If you look at the complete run of The Avengers the four years between 1965-1968 were the shows glory years. Steed needed Emma. The show actually was on the air for many years before and after Mrs. Peel, but it is Mrs. Peel that balances Steed. This is how I view the relationship of Newbury and Hobbes. Newbury IS too campy, too British, because he isn't complete without Veronica. They balance each other to create a perfect partnership. I can only hope that they will keep walking arm and arm into the fog to fend off the next fiend and finish the day with a pot of Earl Grey.


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