I did not have any expectations for George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge, and it managed to disappoint me anyway.
The book is beautifully presented. I must remember what they say about books and covers. Besides the beautiful cover, The Affinity Bridge has a clever idea: a Holmesian detective who is an Agent of the Crown, and his plucky female Dr Watson, in a steampunk world. Poor plotting, shallow characterization and bad prose stand between this idea and its execution.
In the Whitechapel slums, people are being strangled by a strange “blue glowing policeman.” Just as Newbury and Hobbes, our two protagonists, begin to investigate, Queen Victoria calls them away to solve the mystery of an airship crash. It is immediately clear to the reader that the slum murders and the crash will be connected, and it is soon clear exactly how.
Later on there are chase scenes, and attacks by the “revenants,” zombie-like survivors of a mysterious plague that has shown up in London. Newbury and Hobbes do not drive any of the action. They do not provoke, they do not confront; they do not make choices that up the ante for them. For Veronica Hobbes, the feisty female sidekick, this is less of an issue, but Newbury has been presented as a brilliant scholar and investigator of extraordinary deductive powers. He does no detecting. He and Hobbes are the passive victims of these attacks. It is hard to respect main characters who do not drive the action and wait to be acted upon by outside forces.
There is no chemistry between Hobbes and Newbury, although Mann is trying to set the stage for a love affair, or at least an attraction. The characters have almost no back-story and what they do emerges on the page only when Mann needs it — “Oh, didn’t I tell you that I grew up in India, and I’ve seen this plague before?” Villains are too obvious and too stereotypically villainous. The bluff head of Scotland Yard exists as a sounding board for Newbury, occasionally blatting out 1930s-movie-vintage expostulations like “Good God, man!”
Newbury is called “Sir,” yet there is no explanation for his knighthood, and no real reason to believe he would have it, based on what we are told. I wonder if Mann has confused the honorific “Sir” with “Lord,” a hereditary title, and if he thinks Newbury is aristocracy. This is never explained. Newbury’s background appears colonial, but again, is never explained. Hobbes is even more of a cipher, except that she has a sister who is precognitive. The relationship between these two, a small subplot, is the most authentic in the book.
Small but consistent grammar errors, awkward sentence structure and uninspired descriptions plague the book. If the writing were vivid and smooth, that would effectively paper over many of the book’s other weaknesses, especially because the steampunk concepts are intriguing. Instead the flat writing enhances the plot flaws and the vapid characterization.
This is the first book of a series. At the very end, we are treated to a surprise about one of the characters, and a discussion between Queen Victoria and one other person that puts in place an over-arching story a la Holmes and Moriarty. It is not enough to make me want to read further. If you are looking for Sherlock Holmes in a steampunk world you would do better with Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne series.
Start with some steampunk, add heaping bits of Sherlock Holmes, a dash of Nancy Drew, a couple tablespoons of Dr. Who, a cup of zombies, and (unfortunately) some well-tread movie bits, and you’ve pretty much summed up The Affinity Bridge — a mildly enjoyable, if not particularly original, romp through a slightly-off Victorian England.
Set in an alternate steampunk London with massive airships overhead and ravenous zombies in the poorer streets (the result of a virus from India), The Affinity Bridge introduces the detective duo of Sir Maurice (an anthropologist at the British Museum and a Queen’s agent) and his assistant Watson, I mean, Miss Veronica Hobbes. The two have a plethora of cases to deal with — the mysterious crash of a passenger airship, the mysterious disappearance of the airship’s clockworkman pilot (brand new automatons being built by a genius Frenchman exiled from Paris), the aforementioned zombie virus, and strange deaths of paupers in Whitechapel attributed to a glowing policeman.
Mann makes no bones about the clear borrowing of Holmes, with Sir Maurice an opium addict, for instance, but the duo is nicely updated with Miss Hobbes, and Hobbes and Maurice have an enjoyable chemistry between them as they feel their way through this new relationship. Maurice’s Scotland Yard pal and his housekeeper, along with a few other minor characters are equally enjoyable, if two-dimensional, with the exception of the villains who are weakly drawn.
The plot moves along quickly and enjoyably for the first half of the book — engaging if not compelling — and while we don’t get a fully created alternate world, the small bits of alternate England mesh well enough and hold one’s interest. The plot, unfortunately, turns into a pastiche of cliches (literary, television, and film) in the end. For example, there’s a fight scene atop a moving train. While the plot remains serviceable it becomes a bit too much of we’ve seen this all before (because it is a mystery, I don’t want to go into much detail). Sir Maurice’s abrupt shift into a semi-super fighter also comes a bit out of nowhere, and a subplot involving Hobbe’s future-seeing sister adds nothing to the story.
George Mann is clearly setting us up for more adventures with these two. I won’t leap up at the first chance to grab book two nor, to be honest, would I buy it based on The Affinity Bridge, but if I saw a sequel on the library shelf I’d check it out to see if Mann has wedded his characters’ chemistry and a good sense of pacing to a more original set of circumstances. So, The Affinity Bridge gets a solid three, a quick read that’s enjoyable at the start, a bit mundane, and overly familiar at the end. I recommend holding off to see if the series improves.