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.