BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lilith Saintcrow’s third volume featuring sorceress Emily Bannon and mentath Archibald Clare in an alternative Victorian London. Experiencing a personal tragedy and other complex strains, Bannon and Clare undertake (upon request of the Crown) to solve a series of murders.
PROS: Consuming adventure; an engaging cast of characters; an intriguing world.
CONS: A dissatisfactory conclusion to the mystery; pace of character story arcs stretches over multiple books (which might only be a con for some).
BOTTOM LINE: Returning and new readers alike will appreciate this volume as long as they don’t mind it being more about the characters than the mystery they are solving.
In The Ripper Affair, we again see the gritty side of Lilith Saintcrow’s alternative Victorian London, Londinium. While the nobility only appear in rare visits to Bannon’s grand home, the main characters venture into the least lofty of neighborhoods in pursuit of a murderer. Saintcrow deftly demonstrates the concept of altering mirror events along alternate timelines so that, rather than feeling conveniently tweaked to fit, they become universal knots in the thread of time.
Our London had a culprit who was (presumably) human, while Londinium’s Ripper turns out to be more like Frankenstein’s monster. This book, like the others in the series, uses many such contemporaneous elements in a wonderfully developed alternate-history tapestry. Fantasy concepts, historical details, and even archaic spellings are carefully selected to create a seamless fabric of other-world. Even (or perhaps especially) when the narration dips into Bannon’s thoughts, her inner speech evokes the world the author has created.
The conclusion to the title mystery feels disconnected from the preceding scenes, however. It is as if, arriving at the climax, Saintcrow lost confidence in the planned plot and instead grabbed onto an out-of-the-blue foe. The Ripper Affair’s magic may be that my resultant dissatisfaction in no way made me less interested in “what happens next” to the cast of characters in this world.
Saintcrow offers a tidbit here, a paragraph there, alluding to events which have influenced the state of current relationships. At first, I came away feeling as if all these hints hadn’t helped me understand Bannon or Clare much better now than upon completing book one (but wishing that I did).
Upon reflection, I find a wealth of information. Multiple passages of reasoning and rationalizing, internal motivations and external choices bring us closer to the characters. The suggestions of “things that came before” serve to illuminate the protagonists’ choices in the present. While changes in points of view go unnamed, the speaker is made effortlessly clear for the reader by the way each character’s voice reflects their singular worldview.
Clare, as a mentath, is a creature of logic in a world full of aetheric force. Bannon, as a sorceress, is a creature of power in a world where women are mostly powerless. They both navigate their unique interface with their world deliberately and carefully. This resonated with me and should be appealing to many members of “geek” culture.
Readers new to the Bannon and Clare series could be forgiven for thinking many of the hints in The Ripper Affair would be clearer for having read volumes 1 and 2. But the plot of each is fairly distinct. Those events from The Iron Wyrm Affair and The Red Plague Affair which affect circumstances here are, if not fully explained, at least explicitly named. These books can be read more like layers, one upon the other, as easily as in a line, one after the other. But certain fates which befall characters of the earlier books will probably make experiencing them in order more satisfying.
Read as a mystery, The Ripper Affair doesn’t quite work. As a third installment of a continuing character study in a magic-infused world not quite our own, it fascinates. I could happily spend many more hours in Londinium with Bannon and Clare and their attendant cast, picking up hints, soaking up cultural differences, discovering connections between characters, watching them discover the depths of their own connections to one another.