Reading time: about 6 hours
As a lover of all things steampunk, I should have found my way to this book sooner. However, the queue has rarely allowed such a diversion. After acquiring The Affinity Bridge from Powell’s Books recently, I managed to work it into the queue. And having now read it, my impressions are detailed below.
The main protagonist of the book is Sir Maurice Newberry, a consultant to Scotland Yard, but whose real employer is Queen Victoria. Newberry investigates matters of concern to the Crown, and these credentials lend considerable weight to his inquiries. Newberry is clearly modeled after Sherlock Holmes, right down to the addiction to Maudlin. He is thoughtful, well-spoken, and dedicated. Unlike Holmes, however, Newberry occasionally rushes into action and takes matters into his own hands, including some all-out brawls.
Newberry is assisted by newly hired Veronica Hobbes, who plays Watson to Newberry’s Holmes. Hobbes is smart, dependable, and has some grit herself, though she is equally at ease in a ballroom gown. Mann paints some sexual tension between the two into the story, but they are both far too dedicated and respectful to take their feelings out into the open. The other main supporting character is Charles Bainbridge, head of Scotland Yard and old friend of Newberry. Bainbridge appears quite frequently throughout the story and is presented with similar traits to Newberry, although Bainbridge is older and a little more rough, colored by years of police work.
Mann presents turn-of-the-century London as a city in contrast, setting scenes in museums and opulent houses, as well as slums and factories. The influence of steampunk is subtle, and rather inconsistent. Brass automata pilot dirigibles, and steam-powered taxis are abundant. There’s even a cool weapon that unfolds from an nondescript item, powered by some kind of electrical force, as well as doctors with machines that perform surgery and are filled with wonderous liquids. But that seems to be as far as the steampunk influence goes…it is more subtly applied, rather than dominating society.
The plot concerns an airship crash which may or may not have been an accident. As Newberry and Hobbes investigate, Bainbridge has also requested Newberry to help tracking down a phantom-like, glowing policeman who has been on a murder spree. Then there’s the matter of a plague sweeping London that appears to turn people into zombies. As Newberry gets further into the investigation, he meets the owner of the airship company, the inventor of the automata, examines murder victims, but gets no closer to solving the case. That’s until he is set to meet with an art gallery owner who turns up dead.
This early part of the story can be summed up in one word: boring. It’s not that Mann’s prose is bad; in fact it’s rather elegant. And it not that the story suffered from not having a plot; obviously there were several situations happening at once that required investigation. It’s not even that the characters aren’t interesting; I really liked Newberry, Hobbes, and Bainbridge. It’s just that, well, nothing happens! Newberry and Hobbes investigate the crash scene, they talk to people, they formulate hypotheses, but nothing of real significance happens. My initial interest in the story became a struggle as page after page turns with more of the same. It became a real chore to stick with it, but I manage to persevere through 200 pages of this. The pages do fly by thanks to narrow margins and large fonts.
Almost right at the 200 page mark, the story abruptly shifts and becomes a non-stop action adventure, with Newberry leaping from one conflict to another. Although the story moves furiously through these conflicts, and is a welcome change to the drudgery of the first part, it does require a suspension of disbelief. As Newberry caroms from one battle to the next, he takes wound after wound, bruise after bruise, is stitched up, and then takes more punishment. So much, in fact, that at one point I had to throw my hands up in the air and shake my head. There is Deus Ex Machina taking place here, with Newberry able to withstand wounds no mortal could survive, let alone succumb to shock or loss of consciousness. When Newberry does succumb, he has already saved the day. And he is conveniently immune to the plague sweeping London, one of the few known to have such an immunity. It really is a bit too much.
The worst part is yet to come, however. From the early pages, only a few characters are introduced as potential suspects, and this really doesn’t change through the story. This takes away much of the intrigue, because we already know who the villan is…there aren’t any other possibilities. This reduces the plot to waiting to see how Newberry and Hobbes get the bad guy. As a result, there aren’t any twists or turns I didn’t see coming…the story was very predictable, with all plot threads neatly wrapped up at the end, save one: what caused the plague, why does it turn people into living zombies, and how will it be cured?
Despite the issues I’ve described above, it isn’t a bad story. Mann has an excellent prose and descriptive imagery that captures turn-of-the-century London wonderfully. I was never left wondering what characters were thinking, what their motivations were, and the plot was easy to follow. I would give it a reluctant recommendation for those who like steampunk or Sherlock Holmes novels; there’s a lot to like here, but the flaws hold it back. From what I’ve presented above, you should have enough information to determine whether or not it’s worth giving it a go.