Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

Steampunk always seems to float just below widespread notice in the SFF world, cycling like a steam-driven piston, occasionally poking its head up and saying ‘look we’re still here’. This cycle seems to be peaking yet again, with recent and forthcoming publications like Mainspring/Escapement, Boneshaker, Whitechapel Gods, and the Steampunk anthology. The Affinity Bridge by George Mann (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) stands right in the middle of this mini steampunk invasion.

In Victorian London airships circle, steam-driven taxies are the new rage, and clockwork automatons have become status symbols for the rich. Zombie attacks plague the slums, a serial killer in the form of a supernatural glowing policeman raises alarm, and Queen Victoria herself is kept alive through a horrific life-support system. In this familiar yet alien London, Sir Maurice Newbury conducts investigations for the crown that enter into the realm of the supernatural and occult and his new assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbs, breaks barriers of the time to join him. Two separate investigations converge in this dark, yet proper steampunk Victorian world as Sir Maurice and Miss Hobbs settle into their new partnership.

In The Affinity Bridge Mann channels the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Sexton Blake. This is a detective story that harkens back to an original-feeling buddy-cop tale, with a healthy dash of sexual tension thrown into the mix. In fact it feels much like the homage made by Michael Moorcock with his Sir Seaton Bregg stories, only without the biting satire, subversive humor, exotic settings and crazy alternative histories within a multi-verse. While Mann suffers an apparent lack of depth in comparison with Moorcock, this isn’t (necessarily) a bad thing. The mystery may not present many shocking twists and turns (i.e. it’s a bit predictable), but the presentation is a joy to read while maintaining a fresh feel about it.

Mann captures Victorian-era London very well, yet he truly excels with that proper, stuffy British-ness that one associates with the time. People are respectful, kind, and often insincere while insults are decidedly passive-aggressive. The British Empire is at its height and the riches and the confidence it bestows on the people (well the upper classes anyway) shows through.

This success also breeds failure – when a character is stuffy, respectful and insincere, they are hard to get to know. They become caricatures of society and what they should be. Mann seems to strive to show us more of both Newbury and Hobbs yet can’t quite get past this prevailing image of the times. At the same time, I’m not convinced that he really wants us to see too much of his characters. This is the first adventure in a series with more to come – Mann is clearly holding back a bit for the future, sacrificing the present as a result. This tendency to hold back leads to further issues where character aspects just don’t play out as they should. For example, Newbury’s clear interest and obsession with the occult seems to go nowhere and didn’t really add much to the plot, yet Mann clearly places great importance in it, particularly for future novels. Also, Mann shakes things up at the end with implications for future events, yet these revelations are so drastic they seem too far out of character from what’s been presented to be entirely credible. The overall resulting feel is that of unevenness.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s got a wonderful, classic steampunk vibe and presents a very enjoyable reading experience that at times becomes a true page-turner in-spite of the stuffy Victorian setting. Unfortunately the characterization comes across as uneven, and a few aspects of the plot often feel just as uneven. However, for me, the good outweighed the bad by a large enough margin for me to recommend this piece of the latest steampunk invasion. 7/10

5 comments:

Liviu said...

There are 6 novels contracted but could go longer if the series sells - and a collection of short stories, 3 or 4 already out in various editions of books 1 and 2 - split into 2 arcs, so you can think of AB as book 1 of a trilogy. Also the twist at the end is explained more in book 2 btw, the reasons and so on...

Book 2 is into occult a lot though I was also puzzled by some aspects - eg like book 1, it throws a lot of stuff in but solves only some - so I asked the author and he explained it to me

I added his (no-spoiler) description of what is the plan in my review of book 2 Osiris Ritual, the gist being:

"The first three books form the first arc. There are themes running throughout the first two books that are all teased out in book three. So the seeds for everything have been planted, and I'm hoping that readers will see things in a different light as everything comes to a head in THE IMMORALITY ENGINE.

The format of the books, of course, is to have a 'standalone' mystery - or a new case - each book, but the real arcs are the character arcs and the overall stories that make them who they are. So whilst they can be read as standalone mysteries, there's really two three book arcs, with major themes and a few underlying story arcs"

Neth said...

@Liviu - thanks for the explanation, but I must say I don't find it too satisfying. If this is supposed to be a trilogy rather than just a stand-alone, then it should be advertised as much. The inclusion of a subtitle: 'A Newbury and Hobbs' investigation doesn't cover that, but only provides a hint of more stories to come.

And trilogy or not, Mann could have done a lot to smooth out the uneveness and better present his characters.

Liviu said...

Would not disagree about "advertised as such" - I loved volume 1 a lot though I agree also with the unevenness but as a debut the positives outweighed the negatives a lot and overall I was happy with the conclusion expecting more light in the sequel so to speak - then volume 2 which is better and tighter written, much smoother also, came and puzzled me a lot so I emailed the author...

Also steampunk is now a very wide field encompassing books as disparate as Heart of Veridon, Retribution Falls, Clockwork Heart, Alchemy of Stone, while this one I think more of a Sherlock Bond Jones + plucky assistant (Veronica) + mysterious girl (Amelia who starts having a more and more central role btw) in a steampunk context, the way the original Sherlock Holmes was in the Victoriana context or Bond in the Cold War context...

Anyway I am in for the duration and actually book 3 is a very highly awaited one, a top 5-10 in expectations for 2010, while the new series Ghosts of Manhattan is very intriguing too from the excerpt...

Neth said...

I agree that the positives outweighed the negatives and I'll be looking for the second book. But those negatives were still annoying.

Carl V. said...

I'm kind of torn about this one, both because I generally want to wait to read a series until they are all out and because your review brings up some really good points for and against. What I need to do first is finish up the steampunk books I already have, including James Blaylock's newest, and then the urge for more just might make this a must read!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...