It is never easy to start a series with a sequel, and The Red Plague Affair is the sequel to the first book in Lilith Saintcrow’s BANNON AND CLARE series, The Iron Wyrm Affair, which introduced these characters. (The Damnation Affair is a related novel set in the same world with different characters.) I haven’t read The Iron Wyrm Affair, but The Red Plague Affair was still pretty accessible. Saintcrow takes the steampunk London we love and creates a different, almost mythological spin.
The 19th century city where these stories take place is called Londinium, and it is ruled by Queen Victrix, who is a human but also the Vessel for Brittania. Brittania is the deity or spirit of the land, who rules through a human agent. Emma Bannon is a Prime Sorceress, trained in the college of sorcery, and her arts are those of the Endor, or dark magic (as opposed to the magic of Mending, or light magic). Her friend and partner Archibald Clare is a mentath, a trained analyst who uses observation and logic to solve problems. A mentath is the opposite of a sorcerer, and the “irrationality” of sorcery is baffling to mentaths; this tension is part of the charm of this series.
As the title suggests, a plague is released in the city, a disease that combines magic with basic germ theory to create a deadly epidemic. To discover its cause and a cure, Emma confronts a former friend, Kim Rudyard, and, in doing so, uncovers a secret about one of her Shields; magically trained bodyguards who not only physically protect magical practitioners but also, apparently, balance out magical energies as well. From this book, I would say that Emma is very hard on her Shields.
The book is a nice blend of mystery, adventure, magic and court politics. Emma is not above offending the Prince Consort, Alberich, and putting herself at risk politically with the Queen. Archibald’s fixation on a Moriarty-like rival and his desire for a strange drug hint at future dangers.
The story moves along briskly. The British folklore and mythology add an element of creepy strangeness to an otherwise straightforward adventure. I like the characters of Clare and Bannon, but I did think Saintcrow got a little careless with the writing sometimes. “Mentath,” for instance, sounds a lot like “mentat” from the Dune series; and we read about Emma’s jeweled earrings, or the curls above her ears, a few times too many. Of course I don’t read steampunk for its breathtaking historical accuracy, but, as with other steampunk works, I had to wonder about the world-building logic at times. If each land has an entity or deity like Brittania, then I really don’t see how there can be a British Empire, unless on some other plane Brittania has managed to cow the other entities; clearly the New World exercise in a democratic republic never would have happened; would the American continent’s deity be content to possess a new person every few years, after an election? Seems unlikely. It’s also not particularly clear why, in a world that evolved this way, with women as likely as men to be Vessels, the roles of women would be as limited as they were in our 19th century.
Emma and Archibald are not particularly good people; or perhaps I should say that as agents of the Crown they have had to ignore their better nature for Queen and country. Torturing someone to get information, for example, is considered unsavory but necessary.
For all that, The Red Plague Affair has a nice Holmesian flavor, which is clearly what Saintcrow is going for. Good descriptions and dialogue keep the story moving along. I don’t always agree with Emma’s moral choices, but I admire her passion, and I enjoyed this book.
Bannon and Clare — (2012- ) Publisher: Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn’t help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon’s Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen. In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs. The game is afoot.