BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Newbury and Hobbes investigate a string of robberies that bear the signature of a thief who has already been found dead.
PROS: Palatable blend of steampunk and the supernatural; good characterizations; intriguing mystery; advancement of longer story arcs.
CONS: Some of the police procedural aspects seemed to affect pacing in the earlier parts of the book.
BOTTOM LINE: A series that shows no signs of slowing down.
Looking back at the steampunk-heavy reading I’ve done over the past couple of years, George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbs series is one that stands out as having been consistently enjoyable. (Two others are Mann’s Ghost series, set later in the same timeline, and Cherie Priests Clockwork Century series – two series with recent books that sit near the top of my to-be-read pile.) The Newbury and Hobbes series is set in the turn-of-the-century England where Queen Victoria has achieved pseudo-immortality through mechanical assistance. Sir Maurice Newbury and his tough assistant, Victoria Hobbes, work for the queen investigating occurrences that are too strange for Scotland Yard (represented here by the stalwart Charles Bainbridge) to handle alone. The stories are a palatable combination of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, blending mystery and a bit of the supernatural into page-turning adventures.
The latest book, The Immorality Engine, is no different. At the start, Newbury has succumbed to the influence of opium, a flirtation he started partly to foster occult experimentation and partly to escape the betrayal he felt when he learned that the object of his affection, his lovely assistant Victoria, was secretly working for the queen to spy on him. But personal relationships are put aside (if only temporarily) when a well-known thief appears to be quite busy despite the fact that he was found dead.
Given the supernatural/occult nature of these stories, there’s little doubt (at least to the reader) that copycat crimes are not to blame. But our fearless heroes walk the walk of a solid police procedural, following clues and interviewing suspects, much to the enjoyment of the reader, who will find that the trail is colorfully paved with steampunk accoutrements like deadly mechanical spiders and clockwork warhorses.
If that were all the book did, it would still be a good read, but the author has moved the story into places that make it even more enjoyable. First, he finally addresses the looming behind-the-scenes story of Veronica’s sister, Amelia, who’s plagued with troubling futuristic visions and thus left in the care of the Queen’s own physician, Dr. Fabian, and his mysterious (and creepy) assistant. Second, the author deals more with the aforementioned relationship between Newbury and Hobbes, two people who do have genuine affection for one another, but for various reasons have not yet truly connected. Third, the book deals with the increasingly-sinister actions of Queen Victoria herself, a cunning and powerful monarch who is pulling more strings than she lets on. So, while fans of the previous books (The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual) will be pleased to know that The Immorality Engine plays in the same sandbox, they will also be delighted to see the story moving in new directions and, furthermore, happy to see the advancement of a longer story arc.
Mann’s prose, meanwhile, is a fluid as ever, making for easy consumption, something that readers will especially appreciate in the second half of the book which is hard to put down. The first half, while good, seems to take longer than necessary to get started, not coincidentally linked to Newbury shaking his opium fugue. Throughout the entire novel, though, Mann perfectly captures the atmosphere of Victorian England, not just in language but also culturally. Victoria, for example, is a woman who defies the prim and proper model of women for that time…a characterization that endears her to the reader. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel for Newbury regarding his opium addiction, especially when part of the reason is that it’s tied up in the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between him and Victoria.
Combine story, characters, setting and prose and you’ll come to the same conclusion I did: that The Immorality Engine proves that Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes series shows no signs of slowing down. I’m glad I’m along for the ride.