I wanted to love this book. Really. I’ve had a fascination with Victorian London since childhood (if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I’m pretty sure I lived there in a past life), and with magic and fantasy and more recently with steampunk, and I follow the author on Twitter and read her blog and think she’s a cool, fascinating person I’d love to hang out with over coffee if ever given the chance. So I was primed to love this book. Alas, I didn’t.
The story follows Emma Bannon, one of this alternative Britain’s most powerful sorcerers, and Archibald Clare, a mentath, aka genius logician and Sherlock Holmes analogue. The two meet when mentaths are being murdered and Bannon takes Clare under her protection (while also evaluating whether he might be a suspect). The two uncover a thorny plot to control and/or overthrow Queen Victrix, the embodiment of Brittania, the ruling spirit of the realm. The problem is that it’s a three-pronged conspiracy that really never meshes. One prong involves a one-time lover of Bannon’s, who is presumed dead early in the story, trying to raise a dragon, which will literally destroy the isle of Brittania, and the other involves using a giant robot spider to either kidnap or kill Victrix. It’s never really clear. That plot is being run by a presumed-dead mentath whom we never actually meet in the story. So there really are two different plots going on, and I wish that Saintcrow had tackled them one at a time in separate books, because the result here is kind of a mess.
I appreciate what Saintcrow tried to do here by melding tropes from fantasy and science fiction in a lush Victorian setting, it just didn’t quite work for me. The two plot threads – magic and dragons, logic and machinery – never merged in a way that seemed organic. The magic plot was better written and ultimately more interesting, which left me wondering in the end why the giant logic-powered robots were there at all.
I don’t think it helped that while Bannon was a complex and interesting character, Clare was never expanded beyond his existence as a two-dimensional Sherlock Holmes facsimile. We’re told that Bannon is a powerful sorceress and that Clare is a deductive genius, and we’re shown Bannon’s power, but never really see what it is that makes Clare so brilliant. Mikal, a supporting character, is better drawn than Clare, for all that Mikal remains a mystery at the end of the book. But Mikal is a mystery I want to solve – perhaps enough to pick up the second book, time will tell – while Clare just left me wanting to revisit the original source material and re-read Conan Doyle to get the real thing.
The densely packed prose was another barrier to my enjoyment of this book. Again, I appreciate that Saintcrow was aiming for a Victorian feel to the prose, but it’s so overwrought and top-heavy on adjectives and description at points that it just felt like word soup. Incidentally, Conan Doyle’s prose is actually quite clear, straightforward and readable. One moves through the original Holmes stories with relative ease, while I often felt like I was slogging through The Iron Wyrm Affair
and re-reading sentences because the construction just didn’t make sense.
I also had some issues with the world-building. A lot of it was short-handed by crafting slightly different spellings of place names and such, which really started to annoy me because there was no logic to it -- "Yton" instead of "Eton" or "Whitchapel" instead of "Whitechapel." Saintcrow also plunges the reader headfirst into the world without offering much explanation. A little well-placed exposition would have gone a long way, but the lack contributed to me feeling that reading this was like wading through thick mud.
So, what did Saintcrow do well? Bannon is a pretty fascinating character, and we get just enough of her relationship with Mikal – and Bannon’s own stubborn refusal to recognize what’s right in front of her – to make it interesting without overwhelming the story or turning it into a romance. As a reader who likes romance to be an element rather than the entire plot, this appealed to me.
Saintcrow also writes a hell of an action set piece, especially the scenes in which Bannon is using her significant powers of sorcery. A scene in which Bannon opens herself up to the dark nature of her powers and conjures a magical ride toward the climax is breathtaking.
I also have to give Saintcrow credit for making sure the heroes feel the physical consequences when they plunge into action and danger. There are injuries aplenty – most of them Bannon’s, but then she’s doing most of the heavy lifting in the plot.
Overall, there were some enjoyable bits in this novel, but mostly it felt like a slog and I was thankful when I reached the end and could move on to something else.