BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Maurice Newbury and Victoria Hobbes investigate an airship disaster while victims of a revenant plague make the streets of Victorian London unsafe.
PROS: Excellent world building; captures the Sherlock Holmes feel; never a boring passage.
CONS: The prologue led me to believe the “zombies” played a more central role than they did.
BOTTOM LINE: A hugely entertaining book.
The Affinity Bridge can be succinctly described as “a steampunk Sherlock Holmes story with zombies”. The initial appeal for me was immediate because (1) there is a certain glamour associated with steampunk; (2) I thoroughly enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories; and (3) who doesn’t love a good zombie story?
But succinct as this description is, it can be misleading, as I was soon to discover. The Affinity Bridge is not a zombie story, per se, despite the appetite-whetting prologue that would lead readers to expect otherwise. The emphasis here is on the Sherlock Holmes and steampunk aspects. The zombie parts, while integral to the story, are largely kept beyond the main focus.
The plot follows Maurice Newbury, researcher for a museum by day, otherwise employed as an agent to Queen Victoria herself and tasked with investigating the supernatural. Initially, Newbury is looking into a rash of murders attributed to the legendary and possibly mythical Glowing Policeman. But that investigation takes a back seat when he is reassigned by the Crown to investigate a suspicious disaster regarding the airship The Lady Armitage. This is a perfect opportunity for Newbury to break in his new assistant, Victoria Hobbes. Together they investigate the disaster which may or may not be connected with the revenant plague, an infectious condition that causes its victims to suffer zombie-like symptoms – that is, deteriorating flesh and the need to eat hapless victims.
A period novel such as this relies heavily on setting and world building and here the author does a superb job of recreating nineteenth century London. Not only are social mores (particularly regarding the role of women) depicted in striking detail, but the portrayal of a city on a technological cusp is given as well. Outdated technology is slowly giving way to steam technology, as evidenced by airships, steam engine carriages and the proliferation of automatons which mirror present-day outsourcing. The descriptions of this environment are so clearly described that you can practically smell the machine oil coming off the pages.
Worldbuilding is not the only thing to consider when writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. But here, too, Mann has succeeded winningly. It feels like you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s in the Victorian setting, the language, the demeanor of the characters, and even the pacing of the story. There are also more overt parallels to Holmes: Newbury has a fondness for laudanum much like Holmes’ flirtation with cocaine; Newbury’s police contact, Lestrade, is realized through Constable Bainbridge of Scotland Yard; Newbury even has a helpful housekeeper like Holmes did.
And what of Newbury’s “Dr. Watson”? Victoria Hobbes is somewhat of an enigma. On the one hand, she publicly acts as the devoted female companion. But she often exhibits clear signs of otherwise being a tough, independent female. The former trait makes her a native of her surrounding culture; the latter endears her to the reader. For Newbury’s part, he sees Victoria for the strong woman she is, not the submissive female she pretends to be, which is all the more reason to like them both. Another nice touch: Newbury is not the clichéd perfect detective (see aforementioned fondness for laudanum). Nor is he the Kolchak that his reputation seems to infer. There is little evidence of the supernatural in this story, many relegated to mentions of past cases and office souvenirs, and one that deals with Hobbes’ sister; though the last pages foreshadow some supernatural directions in which the next adventure may lead.
Now, about those zombies… After that eye-opening prologue, they are rumored to be wandering the dark alleyways of Whitechapel, but mostly kept offstage until the second half of the book, where they do make up for their long absence. As I said though, their presence is not really the focus of the book. But they are integral to the case, which is good, because why include them then?
Regardless of this hiccup of false expectation on my part, Mann has written a thoroughly engaging story that’s just plain fun to read – one that I heartily recommend to both Sherlock Holmes fans and steampunk fans, or any reader who would like to experience either.