Review – The Executioner’s Heart

I’ve been a fan of George Mann’s Newbury & Hobbes series for some years now. The stories are often fast-paced and exciting, with a lot more going on in the series’ steampunk universe than intricate clockwork automata and chuffing great engines. The central duo of Sir Maurice Newbury and Veronica Hobbes are often engaging and great fun (even if their mutual lusty restraint doesn’t exactly chime). The books are blessed with a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, from Newbury’s chum on the force, Charles Bainbridge, to the gross and cold-hearted Queen Victoria, for whom Newbury acts as agent.

I do find the series a little like the Indiana Jones movies, however, in that you get marvellous odd numbered books but wonky evens. “The Affinity Bridge” was a great start to the series. “The Osiris Ritual” was okay, but not as good as I’d hoped. “The Immorality Engine”, on the other hand, was flat-out brilliant.

As “The Executioner’s Heart” marks Newbury & Hobbes’ fourth novel-length adventure, you don’t need a crystal ball to get a gist of what’s coming.

It’s London, 1903, and we find an assassin at large; one whose calling card sees them ripping open the chests of their victims and removing their hearts. When Charles Bainbridge is called to the scene of a third victim he suspects a ritualistic edge to the crimes and so calls upon the expertise of a man he knows who lives and breathes the occult, Sir Maurice Newbury.

But all is not well with Newbury. When he’s not receiving death threats from thwarted occultists, megalomaniacs and all-round loony-tunes from his previous escapades, he’s being tasked by the Prince of Wales to root out rogue elements within the Empire that could spark a war. And when he’s not got that hanging over him, he’s using his considerable knowledge and willpower to root out the terrifying premonitions that have long afflicted Veronica’s younger sister, Amelia: a girl the Crown believes (and would prefer) to be dead.

As Amelia’s condition improves, so too does Sir Maurice’s deteriorate. When a particularly gruelling ritual from an ultra-rare (and stolen) book yields the chilling word “Executioner” scrawled over and over again in Newbury’s hand, Amelia has an awful feeling the message is a warning meant for Veronica.

Meanwhile Veronica is growing increasingly suspicious of Bainbridge’s new ally, Professor Archibald Angelchrist. What interest could the Secret Service possibly have in all of this?

So unfolds “The Executioner’s Heart”. It is, for me, the weakest book of the series. It’s still worth a read if you’ve already devoured the first three books, but don’t expect it to reach the giddy heights of “The Immorality Engine”.

The book takes a grave misstep right at the start when Veronica is killed. The story is then rewound to the start so we can follow the events leading up to her murder. Now, there is a device often used in TV shows called the “cold open”, where the show opens with a real WTF curve-ball that leads into the titles. The idea is to hook the viewer into watching more in the hope they will discover just what the hell happened back there at the start. Think of virtually any episode of The X-Files and you’re there. It is not a cold open, however, when you go on to repeat the same scene at the climax of the story and then make a small, yet significant difference to the outcome. What you have instead is a cheating, tenth-rate way of getting readers to the end of the book, and it really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Then there’s the “investigation” part of this particular Newbury & Hobbes investigation. Essentially there isn’t one. If you take a step back from the story you soon realise the plot is flanneling along until Aldous Renwick, Newbury’s friend and rare book dealer, pulls out a dossier on the assassin and says “That’s the one.” It’s also fairly obvious who is hiring the assassin before reaching the half-way point.

Finally we come to typos. I have in the past dragged this book’s publisher, Titan Books, over the coals for their shoddy work on David Wong’s “This Book Is Full Of Spiders”. It’s therefore disappointing to also see some pretty calamitous typos in this book, including what appears to be one sentence pasted into the middle of another. Given the number of eyes cast over the manuscript, I’d dearly love to know how these things manage to slip by undetected. Seriously, Titan, I’m all ears.

So, yeah, I didn’t really get along with “The Executioner’s Heart”. Being a fan of the series as a whole I really wanted to like it, particularly when I learned there was somehow more to come after the jaw-dropping conclusion of “The Immorality Engine”. Maybe that’s it. I’m only theorising, but I’m wondering if Mann wrote Book Three feeling there would be no more to come, and went hell for leather with the plot as a result. (The first three novels were put out through a different publisher, Snowbooks.) “The Executioner’s Heart” also has the whiff of a reboot about it. Certain holy-shit moments from Book Three aren’t necessarily ignored, but they are dialled down in their importance in ways that don’t feel right, presumably to regain control over the plot. It’s like re-boxing a mess of uncoiled springs.

While the plot and the structure of the novel were a let-down, the novel is partly saved by its characters. They are all as engaging as ever, and do help keep those pages turning. Those who enjoyed the bloodthirstiness of the previous books will also be well served here.

Should you read “The Executioner’s Heart”? Yes, but only because it sets up “The Revenant Express”, book five in the series – an odd number lest you forget. Pray that Mann pulls it off because the next one sounds like a belter.

3/5

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Review – Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Everyone likes to find a twenty in their wallet they forgot they had. Nestled between some wrinkly old receipts, its discovery puts a smile on your face and you find yourself saying “Hello, where have you been all this time?”

I found the final three-quarters of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little like that, for reasons I’ll blather about shortly.

Welcome to the by-now utterly bizarre universe occupied, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent for King Albert (see, bizarre – I told you), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time knocked wildly off-course by the accidental interference of one Spring-Heeled Jack, whose inadvertent influence has given science and technology a premature shot in the arm, leading to bizarre insect-based conveyances (each hollowed out and steam-driven) and eugenically-altered plant life. So, yeah, like I said… mondo bizarro.

It should be said at this point that you really ought to come to Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon having already read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. While Hodder gives the reader a fair amount of backstory, had I have come to this book cold I’d have perhaps put it down three chapters in, wondering what in blue blazes was going on, and declaring the whole thing a little too wilfully outrĂ©.

A significant reason for this, as I alluded to earlier, is because the universe in which these stories take place has, by book three, deviated so far from historical norms as to make it almost alien. The creative spurts of the eugenicists, for example, has bridged the gap to create not only animal men, but plant men too. Weaponised vegetation? Check. Acid-spitting plant-life with a thirst for blood? You betcha. In the first book, Spring-Heeled Jack suffers severe culture shock upon landing so far back in the past, which, I suspect, is a sensation not entirely dissimilar to diving into this series three books in.

The most troubling aspect I’d have had, however, would have been the structure of the book. Here you have two Burtons: one preparing to venture to the Mountains of the Moon, to not only retrieve a dirty great diamond but also to once and for all ascertain the source of the Nile; and also a second amnesiac Burton flung forward in time to an alternate World War I, witnessing first-hand the terrible world that has spun off from the actions of both Spring-Heeled Jack and he himself.

In short, I suspect it’d make a hell of a lot more sense if you were to read the first two books, so off you toddle.

For those of you still here, let me say that Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is another great read from Hodder, who, I’m guessing, three books in, is having a whale of a time conjuring up yet more complicated oddness for his alternative universe, when most lesser writers would have jumped off a bridge, declaring to have written themselves into a corner.

Not only has Hodder an imagination seemingly only measurable in light years, but he has a depth of knowledge for the Victorian era to match it. While his universe has spun off in many bizarre ways following the accidental assassination of Queen Victoria, it still recognisably parallels real-life events and the people of the age. But then, in Expedition, he pulls an ace from his sleeve.

We are shown, in the previous books, Burton’s recollections of his time spent in Africa, and how he incorporates the things he learned there into his day-to-day duties as the King’s agent. These references help cement the man as a dyed-in-the-wool explorer. Around a quarter of the way into Expedition, Burton and company embark on their journey for the final as-yet undiscovered black diamond, and here Hodder suddenly reveals himself to be just as good at writing a sprawling (and, crucially, well-researched and expertly-executed) desert adventure. After 2 1/4 somewhat barmy books set in foggy old Blighty I found myself reading Expedition thinking “Hello! Where’s all this come from? This is great!” It was like finding a whole new book, if not that crisp twenty from earlier.

Expeditions is not a book without its issues, however. Like Spring-Heeled Jack before it, the reader is asked to let slide some pretty eye-watering coincidences from beginning to end. For example, the way in which Burton’s party for the expedition is assembled is somewhat contrived (i.e. nearly all the surviving characters from the previous book are somehow shoehorned into the start of the expedition, including one that instantly had my eyes rolling – you’ll know who when you get there). An old returning character is reintroduced to the story in a fashion that had me saying to myself “Of all the oases in all the deserts in all of Africa she walks into mine”. Finally, the author’s habit of dropping in real-life historical figures into the story continues unabated. Some work, such as Sidi Bombay, while others set my eyes rolling again.

Finally, there were a few too many typos than one would expect from a retail book. There are thankfully not as many as there were in Spring-Heeled Jack, but enough that had me starting to watch out for them, taking me out of the story a little.

As for the ending… well, let’s just say I can’t wait to read #4, if only to see how on earth Hodder manages to continue the story. The Goodreads blurb hints #4 to be the start of a new series, which sounds ominous. I’ll reserve judgement, however, until I get my eager peepers on the thing.

Rating: In summary this, like Clockwork Man before it, is a solid 4/5 from me. Heartily recommended, old thing.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

So, you’ve just managed to disentangle a massively complicated plot from your head and successfully gotten it onto the page. Not only that but you’ve managed to hang upon it some very well-researched material to give it a real sense of place, and a huge dollop of imagination to make the story your own. Heck, you’ve even received an award for your efforts.

Where next then? Get a clean notebook out for an all-new story?

Well, if you’re Mark Hodder it appears you decide that the first story wasn’t complicated enough and then go in again with a big spoon to stir things up some more!

Welcome to The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, set in the bizarre alternative universe inhabited, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent to King Albert (yes, that’s right), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time significantly altered by the unintended temporal shenanigans of one Spring-Heeled Jack, bringing about premature advances in assorted scientific and technological disciplines. Do you want to be flown here and there beneath giant eugenically-engineered swans? You got it, old bean. How about some autonomous steam men clunking about the place? Yeah, we got those too.

Now, if you haven’t read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, then stop right now and seek it out. While many book series are comprised of largely separate stories, the events of both this book and its sequel, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, are tied more with its first book than other series I’ve read. Hodder provides some backstory in each of these follow-ups, but had I come to this story cold then I may have felt these expository parts a little tacked-on. And, anyway, the first book is rather good fun, so give it a whirl.

Anyway, what you have here is another inventive slice of Albertian England involving missing diamonds, contested estates and ghostly manifestations, which then descends into something else entirely.

There’s no farting about from Hodder in this story. The action and intrigue kick in from the get-go – a benefit of having gotten a large amount of the world-building guff out of the way in the first book. In this story Burton and Swinburne follow the trail of a stolen collection of black diamonds. Burton discovers the stones possess a few special properties, chief among them a resonance with human brainwaves. Or they would have done were they not fakes.

Meanwhile, public interest is piqued by The Tichborne Affair, where the sudden return of Roger Tichborne, long considered lost at sea, sees him pitch a claim for the Tichborne estate. The fact that the claimant doesn’t resemble Roger Tichborne in any way seems no obstacle, particularly when many of those who see him in the flesh instantly vouch for him. The general public take Roger to their hearts, despite his social standing, seeing instead a penniless man deprived of what was rightfully his. Tensions mount across London when the claimant’s lawyer takes his client’s case to the masses.

Could the two stories be connected in any way? Oh, come on, what do you think?!

How these story threads come together, however, takes the story off in a completely different direction: one that doesn’t auger well for the course of (this alternative) history, one that smartly ties in with elements of the first book and one that brilliantly sets up the next one. (Don’t worry, there’s closure to be found.)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is, for me, a great follow-up to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, and one I feel somehow improves the first story. As mentioned earlier, the fewer diversions into world-building enables Hodder to get on with telling the goddam story, and as a result, he keeps those pages a-turning, which, of course, is A Good Thing.

Another Good Thing is the fact that the book is mostly clean of typos, something of a blessing when compared to the first book. It all helped to keep me in the story. (I can’t heap praise onto a published book for being free of typos, however.)

What irritations I found in the story were relatively minor. Again the finale gets a little too silly for me. It’s funny, yes, but you may be well advised to suspend disbelief before stepping in. The main characters once more fall into philosophical discussions that take the reader away from the story, though thankfully only for a couple of pages at a time. Then there was the rather OTT descent into carnage that teetered dangerously close to Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air (whose message, I think, though I could have been wrong, even though it was rubber-stamped on nearly every bloody page, was that communism was bad). Thankfully Hodder uses such civil unrest sparingly and, in a way, eerily presages the Tottenham riots of 2011 that unfolded a month before the book’s publication!

Rating: In all this is a great read, a nailed-on 4/5 from me. Be sure to pick up the next book as well as this one, however, as you will want to dive straight in once you hit the end of Clockwork Man.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll

Review – The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Book series are the lifeblood of genre publishing, perhaps more so now than at any other point in publishing history. Take a moment the next time you’re in a bookshop to see just how much shelf space they occupy. (And, annoyingly, how many of those series are missing Book One!)

Book series are popular with readers as they allow them to re-enter a familiar world they previously found entertaining. The cynical among you may also argue book series are popular with authors, agents and publishers because they are a much easier sell than a standalone piece of work.

Of course, before getting to that stage, all concerned need to surmount that most tricky of obstacles: the first book of the series. That first book has to do a hell of a lot. It has to introduce the main and supporting characters and set up relationships between them all. It has to create an interesting universe in which to house future instalments. It has to nail down some rules for the characters to play by. And then, on top of all that, it has to tell its own mighty fine story in the hope of then luring readers back for more.

This takes us to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, the first instalment of Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne series, detailing the adventures of Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne in an alternative Industrial Revolution-era universe. I bought this along with its subsequent two books, and have refrained from writing a review until I had read all three.

It sounds mean, but I did this because I wanted to know whether subsequent books in the series would improve upon Spring-Heeled Jack. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – far from it – the book won the Philip K Dick award, after all – but had it been a standalone work then I’d have marked it down a little more.

The reasons mostly relate to that First Book Syndrome I was blathering about just now. There are parts of the story, particularly in the first 50 or so pages, where there was a little too much world-building going on. There were also pages of philosophical discussion between assorted characters that made me wonder what I’d let myself in for. Then, thankfully, the story began, and rather good it was too.

Queen Victoria is dead, assassinated very early into her reign, which, after some political jiggery-pokery, brings about the Albertian era. Years pass and King Albert’s subjects are blissfully unaware that history should not have unfurled in this way. Someone has interfered with the past and is desperate to put things right. The ramifications of their actions, however, help accelerate development in assorted scientific and technological disciplines, creating a bizarre London filled with steam-driven Penny Farthings, airborne chairs, parakeet messengers and eugenically-altered people. Peppered throughout this alternative history are attacks from and bizarre sightings of the titular Spring-Heeled Jack.

Amidst this oddness is Sir Richard Burton, explorer extraordinaire, reeling from the apparent attempted suicide of John Hanning Speke, a former friend turned bitter rival. Burton is soon set upon by a raving-mad Spring-Heeled Jack, whose insane rant reveals that history has been altered, and suggests a dull future had once lay ahead for Burton. When Burton is offered the role of the King’s agent he therefore quickly accepts (thus spinning history further off the rails). Assisted by the poet Algernon Swinburne, and assorted other real-life historical figures, they uncover a wonderfully complicated plot of twisted ideologies, bad science and time travel.

(“Just how complicated a plot?” you may ask. Well, reading Spring-Heeled Jack brought to mind an old Mad magazine skit of Back to the Future 2, where a famous US sports pundit would frequently break into the story to explain the temporal tomfoolery that was going on, using a chart covered with esoteric lines and arrows. Hodder’s chart in plotting this story, I reckon, would have been visible from space.)

Now, while I say the story is good, in order to enjoy it fully you are going to have to suspend disbelief more than a couple of times, and flat-out ignore some annoyances that litter the book.

First, even though Sir Richard Burton is a well-connected man, there is a large dollop of happenstance in Spring-Heeled Jack. The cynic in me was sometimes left debating the next historical figure to be shoehorned into the story.

Second, there were times, particularly towards the end, when the story got too silly for me. When the cabal of bad guys was fully revealed it instantly smacked of a Venture Bros episode. (Mind you, if Hodder had planted the line “They hit me with a pantechnicon!” in there, that would have been an instant 5 stars from this reviewer.)

Third, though this is a minor niggle, there is evidence in this book that Hodder will need a new keyboard to replace the Shift and 1 keys, for there are exclamation marks ruddy well everywhere. I often hit sentences and dialogue that didn’t seem to warrant them. They also appear in the narrative voice, which may irk some readers.

Finally, and this perhaps bothered me the most, the copy I had was littered with formatting errors and typos. The odd one I could handle, but there were masses of them in this book. I’d read a line of dialogue only to find it was actually two lines caused by a missing line break. This made for added confusion when the return dialogue began on the next line, but incorrectly indented. I also couldn’t help but notice all the way through that “Spring-Heeled Jack” was hyphenated in the page headers, but not at all within the story itself. I found these lapses surprising and disappointing given the quality of Snowbooks’ previous output.

That said, there is a huge amount of stuff in this book to admire. While Hodder has created an alternative history for his series, it is still a history that recognisably parallels actual events. How he has managed to squeeze all of this into a coherent (albeit bonkers) plot speaks of a deep knowledge of the era as well as staggering inventiveness and imagination.

Overall, had this have been a standalone book, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack would have been a 3/5 from me. However, the quality of the sequels help edge this up a notch. If you thought the plot in this book was mad, just see where Hodder takes his alternative history next!

Rating: 3.5, rounded up to 4/5. Cordially recommended, old thing.

And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll