High above, she could see the sky through the torn belly of the airship, the broken spokes of its internal structure poking up into the waning afternoon light. She realized almost immediately that the water droplets she had felt were not rain, but water from the hose carts, sprayed up into the blazing inferno earlier that day and still dripping from the girders up above. She glanced around; looking for anything else that may have been of use. She could see a hole in the left side of the room where the firemen had obviously dug their way through from the outside in an attempt to find survivors. She wondered how those men had reacted to the scene that had faced them. Had they too been as appalled as she was? She finally gave in to her horror and vomited on the ground, her eyes stinging as she retched, violently, over and over again, until there was nothing left for her body to expel. (pp.43-44)
The preceding passage is representative of what both works and doesn't work about first-time author George Mann's new caper The Affinity Bridge, a savvy little thriller that, much like the crazed robots who feature in its plot, doesn't always run like clockwork.
The story, about a pair of detectives racing to unravel the cause of a catastrophic airship crash in a Steampunk version of Victorian England, is expertly plotted and filled with beguiling characters—but whether detailing the grisly aftermath of a crime or following its protagonists across the tops of speeding trains, Mann's prose unfurls at the exact same pace, never deviating from its measured British meter (think more Conan Doyle, less Douglas Adams) for a second.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. From his description of London's foggy, crime-ridden Whitechapel district to the minutiae of a gentleman's laudanum addiction, Mann's research on the Victorian era deserves to be savored. Fans of Alan Moore's work (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell) will likely enjoy Mann's depiction of Victorian asylums, slums, aristocratic soirees and things that go bump in the night. The hero of the story, Sir Maurice Newbury, is a Crown detective whose more-than-passing interest in the occult provides Mann an opportunity to explore the Victorian culture's famously esoteric practices. Early on, a scene where Newbury attends a phony séance sets the wry tone of the story.
Newbury is a charming protagonist, obsessed with Earl Grey tea and his pretty new assistant, Ms. Veronica Hobbes. (The Mulder/Scully comparison is impossible to avoid, but not unwelcome.) Together, he and Veronica take on flesh eating zombies and mad scientists, and develop an interesting rapport. Veronica, whose outspoken opinions on gender roles place her ahead of her time, could easily have become a feminist cliché but Mann de-emphasizes this by using her to introduce more prescient themes into the story, notably those having to do with the advancement of technology. When a batch of robotic "automatons" are found to be connected to the airship crash, Veronica expresses a cautionary attitude towards the advancement of technology while Newbury remains fanatically gung-ho. The theme of "what price advancement?" is vital to a story in which the major conflicts are scientifically induced. Mann is smart enough to keep the characters—heroes and villains—pondering the question right through the denouement As zombie plagues rage, robots revolt, and steam-technology literally blows up in the faces of Mann's cast, one is glad that The Affinity Bridge is only the first in a promised series of Newbury and Hobbes investigations: the seeds he plants here should bear some compelling fruit in the future
One also hopes that future books will iron out some of the kinks that occasionally bog down the story. The plot takes a little too long to develop, making the reader wonder when Newbury will stop investigating and start taking it to the streets. When his hero finally does see action, Mann piles on the fisticuffs and chases in a veritable glut that soon become unbelievable—even in a story where technology has advanced enough to reassemble broken bones and battered skulls overnight. No doubt intended to reach a crescendo, Mann's fight scenes don't yet have a knack for acceleration. He often labors over blow-by-blow descriptions that deteriorate into laundry lists of stage directions:
Newbury ... waited a moment until the nearest [automaton] was only a matter of feet away from him and then charged it, trying to use his speed and body weight to his advantage. The automaton saw him coming, however, and twisted out of the way, clicking its torso through ninety degrees in a manner in which a human being would find it impossible to emulate. Newbury, unable to stop his momentum, slammed into the side of Mrs. Coulthard's desk, jarring his injured shoulder and falling awkwardly to the ground. The desk, overturned, sent sheaves of paper blooming into the air. Just in time Newbury realized he'd landed at the feet of the second automaton, and rolled to the left, narrowly avoiding its falling hand, which chopped down against the tiles with terrifying force, splintering the porcelain in a cloud of dust. Not stopping to hesitate, Newbury, still on the floor, grabbed out for the automaton's leg, yanking it forward and unbalancing the device, sending it smashing down on the hard floor beside him. It immediately began to clamber to its feet... (p. 198)
Huge chunks of description like this are more suited to scene-setting and plot development (as in the description of the airship crash site, above, which Mann executes with far more confidence). When applied to action, they tend to slow things down. Moreover, the amateurish nature of Mann's prose in this instance ("not stopping to hesitate" is cringe-worthy) reveals an author not yet as comfortable with action scenes as he should be.
One holds back from judging Mann too harshly however, because, as part one of a larger series, The Affinity Bridge has a lot of setting-up to do. Mann may trip on the action, but his world-building and attention to character inspires confidence. And while a back-story featuring Veronica's clairvoyant younger sister, locked away in an asylum, seems predictable and a not a little melodramatic, one feels confident that Mann will put it to good use in future installments. Ultimately, the questions Mann leaves his readers to ponder (why are there so many zombies in London? And why is Queen Victoria so interested in robots?), as well as a subtle-but-impressive twist ending, will certainly entice them back for the sequel.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. Her latest short story will soon appear in On Spec. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.