T. Aaron Payton’s The Constantine Affliction (2012) is a witty gender-bending romp through Victorian London as it never was. Most of us will call this “steampunk.” Payton prefers “gonzo-history.” I say, “whatever works.”
Ellie Skyler, who is assumed to be male, makes her living as a journalist using the pen name “E. Skye.” She plans to go in male attire into one of the city’s clockwork brothels, where the prostitutes are nearly perfect simulacra of human women, to write an expose. Clockwork “comfort houses” have become even more popular since the rise of the Constantine Affliction, a sexually-transmitted disease that changes the gender of those who survive it. Even though Albert, the Prince Consort himself, has survived the disease and been transformed into a “horse-faced woman,” London has made surprisingly few social changes as a result of this disorienting disease, which seems to affect only the city and not the entire country.
Exploring the brothel, Ellie stumbles across a secret that puts her life at risk if her adversaries figure out who she is. They don’t know her female identity yet, but they are closing in.
Lord Pembroke, known as Pimm, is a bored nobleman who finds meaning only in drinking and crime-solving. Pimm acts like Nick Charles in The Thin Man, even to having the smart and witty wife, Winifred, only “Freddie” is Pimm’s formerly-male best friend, survivor of the affliction, and their marriage is for appearance’s sake only. Abel Value, a criminal, uses this fact to blackmail Pimm into investigating the murders of some of his human prostitutes. Of course, Pimm’s investigation collides with Ellie’s.
Payton’s level of sheer imaginative energy is mind-boggling. In addition to the automata, he has the aurora anglais, a ribbon of shimmering color in London’s night sky, alchemical DNA testing; alchemical batteries; a radiation fire burning for decades in Whitechapel and reports of strange tentacled monsters in the Thames. I did miss dirigibles, but maybe Payton is saving something for his next book.
Ellie, Freddy and Pimm join forces to defeat the villain and his nefarious scheme — or rather, schemes. He seems to have several. The mystery is never about the “who;” it is always the “what” and the “why.” Even though our three heroes are quite brainy, the reader will figure out the answers to those questions ahead of them.
While Payton never loses control of his plot, I do think there are a few too many elements here. The villain’s primary scheme is really diabolical enough. His motivations are plausible but his personal genesis isn’t, and then to discover that one of his minions is a True Believer with yet a different agenda is just a bit much.
None of these complaints apply to the character who opens and closes the book. Readers will quickly identify the reclusive scientist known as Adam, because Payton is generous with his hints. Although not one of the main characters, Adam plays an important part in the story. He functions according to his own morality rather than human morality, since Adam does not consider himself human. To make this character even more interesting, Payton has given him synesthesia, allowing Payton to play with sensory detail — the way the taste of oranges chimes like cathedral bells, for instance. Adam is not a hero, but he is redeemed at the end of the book, in a touching way.
Payton also has fun adding characters drawn from popular fiction and literature. There is Adam, of course. Pimm visits a colleague who will delight Conan Doyle fans, and even Virginia Woolf gets a nod.
Ellie and Freddie are strong intelligent women, and Pimm is a thoughtful, quietly gallant guy. Secondary characters are nicely done. The Constantine Affliction is good fun, a perfect beach-vacation or summer-day read.