Author: Lilith Saintcrow, 2012.
Genre: Historical Urban Fantasy. Alternative History. Steampunk elements.
Other Details: Paperback. 323 pages.
For Queen, for country, for staying alive . . .
The game is afoot! London's geniuses are being picked off by a vicious killer, and Emma Bannon, a sorceress in the service of the Empire, must protect the next target, Archibald Clare. Unfortunately he's more interested in solving the mystery of the murders than staying alive . . In a world where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare will face dark sorcery, cannon fire, high treason and the vexing problem of reliably finding hansom cabs in the city. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
I had been looking forward to reading this having been intrigued by its synopsis and drawn to its attractive cover art. Yet quite early on I began to feel that it was fatally flawed. Not quite a 'book fail' but skirting pretty close. To make it worse I had already bought the attractive looking second in the series. Oops!
So what was wrong? First off her world-building was very poor. Saintcrow changed the names of various locations: London becomes Londinium and Queen Victoria becomes Victrix and so on. It seems that magic is rampant and has brought about an unusual take on the Industrial Revolution that has manifested in the form of clockhorses, logic engines, people being altered to be part automaton and various other aspects but why, when and how?
I also never really took to either Emma Bannon or Archibald Clare as lead characters. Saintcrow was trying far too hard to have Clare emulate Sherlock Holmes and it just didn't succeed. In addition, Emma Bannon was so all-powerful in terms of her magical skills that there was no real sense of threat to her. To make matters worse she flounces. I was able to handle this kind of behaviour in the Gail Carriger's 'Parasol Protectorate' series because it was done in a tongue-in-cheek manner and Alexia Tarabotti was both charming and sexy. However, that sense of fun just wasn't present here. Despite the fact that all the males in the story seem drawn to her, Emma Bannon comes across as a cold and prickly woman so when she acts coquettish or fusses about her appearance it struck another off note.
Then there was the pacing: there was almost non-stop action from start to finish. Fine if you like that sort of thing but I prefer a more organic pacing. Yet it seems to be a hallmark of some urban fantasy writers that they write one dangerous encounter on top of another with hardly a breath in between. This is the case here with very little exposition, which seriously detracted from the world-building and made for a seriously muddled plot. The actual underlying story itself wasn't bad but it was struggling to emerge and the elements mentioned above seriously detracted from my appreciation of the novel.
Though heavily marketed as steampunk I felt the steampunk elements were more set decoration than in the spirit of the steampunk sub-genre. It seemed more like alternative history with magic and this was borne out by Saintcrow's interview in the Orbit UK edition in which she says: "I didn't think it was "steampunk" when I was writing it... For me it was a variety of alt-history mixed with urban fantasy." I suspect her publisher's marketing department felt differently given the current fashion for steampunk. It was also quite obvious before I read that same interview that she was rather taken with Guy Richie's Sherlock Holmes films, both of which I felt were hot messes.
On the plus side, I did appreciate the concept of the ruling monarch as the living embodiment of Britannia and the gryphons and dragons were quite cool. Given I've already bought it I likely will read Book 2 though with far lower expectations than I had for this.