Series: THE BANNON & CLARE AFFAIRS
Plot Type: Dickensian, Holmesian, Steampunk
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: Orbit
> Charters have a faint talent drawing simple magical symbols.
> Charmers have a slightly stronger ability to draw and hold symbols.
> Mancers have even stronger magical abilities pertaining to drawing and holding symbols.
> Witches have stronger magical abilities than the previous group, but they cannot split their focus.
> Sorcerers can perform major spells without losing track of their whereabouts.
> Master Sorcerers can move physically while performing a major spell.
> Adepts are stronger than Masters and can also move physically while performing a major spell.
> Primes are the strongest sorcerers and can successfully focus on more than one major spell at once.
NOVEL 1: The Iron Wyrm Affair
Although Clare is supposed to be helping Emma out with his deductive approach to the investigation, that part doesn't work very well for the reader because Clare is more of a quirky caricature than a character, with his constant references to his digestive system and his mind-boggling and unexplained leaps of logic based on precious few facts. The final scenes leading up to the climax suffer from an information deficit. The whole concept of the mechs (which is central to the final conflict) just isn't explained thoroughly enough to understand what's going on without backtracking to reread those sections more than once.
I'm actually looking forward to book 2, to see where this series is going. I like the main characters, who are nicely developed (except for Mikal), and I admire Saintcrow's intricate world-building. One thing that would be enormously helpful, though, is a glossary of terms.
NOVEL 2: The Red Plague Affair
The main plot focuses on Emma and Clare as they figure out what Morris was up to and try to find him and the deadly canisters he has hidden around the city—canisters that contain a substance designed to kill masses of people. Eventually the devious Dr. Vance gets drawn into in the search as well, forging an uneasy partnership with Clare that cannot possibly end well.
A related story thread deals with the mystery of Mikal's true identity. Kim Rudyard, an old frenemy of Emma's—a sorcerer from Indus (India)—has a startling reaction when he first sees Mikal. Kim turns pale, bows to Mikal, and then says "Your kind have no power on these shores." (p. 70) So…another hint about Mikal's power, but no real facts about his true identity. Emma has her own suspicions about Mikal, but she never voices them. She fears that if she knows who—or what—Mikal really is that she might have to take some type of action against him. She'd rather use a "Don't ask; don't tell" policy in order to maintain the status quo (and plausible deniability).
Throughout most of the book, Emma and Mikal try to find and capture Morris, while Clare, Ludo, and Vance try to figure out what Morris was working on and how to create an antidote to deal with the disastrous results. At times, Emma is forced to deal with the Collegia, the heart of White Magic, where she—with her dark Magic—is an outsider and Mikal is an abomination.
Most interesting to watch are the fluctuations in relationships and loyalties among the major players: between Emma and Clare; Clare and Vance; Emma and Mikal; and especially between Emma and Queen Victrix. Emma and Clare's friendship deepens in this book, but they are still very far apart in their approaches to life. Here, Clare muses about their relationship: "Yes, Miss Bannon was a friend. It was rather like forming an acquaintance with a large, not-quite-tamed carnivore." (p. 25) In this book we learn much more about Emma's dark childhood, although the scene in which she revisits her childhood home is dropped into the plot in an oddly awkward manner.
Saintcrow is at her best when she is painting word pictures, especially of various Dickensian supporting characters, of dark and smoggy Londinium, and of Emma in the throes of her Prime powers. Here are three examples:
On an overbearing, long-winded professor: "His papers were marvels of bloodless circuitousness, the most amazing theories and conclusions hidden in a hedge of verbiage dense enough to wall a sleeping princess behind for years." (p. 173)
Here, Emma and Mikal take Morris to the Queen: Emma drags "the errant Dr. Morris the length of the Throne Hall, his heels scraping the stone and her passage accompanied by crackling sparks of stray sorcery....Mikal stalked behind her,…pale and haggard…his irises flamed with yellow light...Her own appearance was likely not decorous enough to inspire confidence. Windblown, salt-crust tears slicking her chapped cheeks, and with every piece of jewelry flaming with leprous green glow, she was the very picture of an angry sorceress." (p. 178)
Emma and Mikal visit Whitchapel in the dead of night: "Yellow fog crept between the buildings, threaded between carriage-wheel spokes, touched hat and hair and hand with cold, sinister damp. It was a slog-souper tonight, the fog lit from within by its own faint venomous glow, its salt-nasty reek…filling the nose….The gaslamps sang their dim hiss-song inside angular cups of bleary streetlamp glass, their faint glow merely refracting from the fog's droplets and making possible danger even less visible." (pp. 190-192)
I recommend this book (and series) for those readers who appreciate being held in long-drawn-out suspense and who prefer a gradual development of the main characters. There are no info dumps of information in this book, just hints and innuendos and enigmas. I recommend reading this novel after you have read The Iron Wyrm Affair so that you will appreciate the complexities of the ever-evolving interpersonal relationships among the main characters.
Unlike the novels set in Britannia, this one takes place in America in the Old West, a place that in this world is a mash-up of cowboys, horses, saloons, and mancy (aka magic). Unlike the novels starring Bannon and Clare, which are a form of urban fantasy, this novel is a paranormal romance with a creepy action plot that puts the hero and heroine in deadly supernatural danger that actually changes the course and quality of their lives. This mythology has some of the same rules of magic as BANNON & CLARE, but it also has zombies. People who die in this world are buried with iron nails pounded through their hands, consecrated salt stuffed in their mouths, and magical symbols branded on their bodies to prevent them from reanimating.
Jack (Gabe) Gabriel is the sheriff of Damnation, a small dusty town in the middle of the western range land. To keep Damnation safe, Gabe works with Russell (Russ) Overton, the town's chartermage to maintain a magical perimeter that keeps out the zombies and other monsters who roam the countryside. Like most people who show up as heroes in paranormal novels, Gabe has a secret in his past that is hinted at throughout the story and fully revealed near the end.
Catherine (Cat) Barrowe-Browne is a young woman from upper-class Boston who has arrived in Damnation to become the one and only school marm (and yes, that's what they call her). Cat also has a secret. Her true reason for coming to Damnation is to find her brother, Robbie, who left Boston for the West in hopes of striking it rich by finding gold. Robbie sent Cat a letter telling her to meet him in Damnation, but warning her not to mention his name to anyone. He also told her to use just the "Barrowe" part of her last name—not the "Browne" part. When Robbie doesn't show up in Damnation to meet her, Cat isn't sure what to do or how to find him. Cat appears to be a Mancer "whose Practicality was in light….Light was a very acceptable Practicality in a young lady..." (As usual in this series, the reader is left to figure out the meaning of various world-building terms through context and imagination because the author provides no further explanation and no glossary of terms.)
Meanwhile, Gabe and Cat are mildly attracted to one another—not much physical contact (just one kiss early on), but plenty of meaningful glances. Cat settles into her teaching job, and Gabe helps her out of a few sticky situations—such as taming down some of the older schoolboys, assisting in the birth of a baby to Cat's young Chinese housekeeper, and cleaning up after the murder of a man in Cat's kitchen. The housekeeper is also a Mancer and her Practicality is air, which merges effectively with Cat's light Practicality.
All through the story, Gabe and Russ refer obliquely to a cursed gold claim that Gabe sealed up, but which is now unsealed: "the boy, and the claim in the hills, the cursed gold, and the incursions.…the rich veins lurking under the claim's black mouth." (p. 21). There is an undercurrent of creepy otherworldliness about the claim, with Gabe and Russ frequently referring to "something" or "it" in "one particular claim, sealed up tight as a vicar's platebox, the ancient hungry thing inside it deep in its uneasy slumber." (p. 139) Eventually, we learn Robby's story and the conflicts are resolved in the requisite showdown scene, but the ending is not the softly romantic HEA that you might expect.
The most bothersome problem with all of the novels set in this world is the fact that Saintcrow doesn't provide enough details about the mythology. She uses mythology-based words and references and expects the reader to figure them out through context, which can be both interesting and frustrating—sometimes at the same time. Unlike the BANNON & CLARE books, this novel has no clockwork technology—no technology at all, really. On the surface, Damnation could be any Old West town, right up until the magic—the mancy—crops up.
I have seen this novel referred to as a novella, but it really isn't. It is a full-length (if somewhat short) novel of 266 pages. It's an O.K. book with just a few differences from the mythology in the Londinium world of BANNON & CLARE. Perhaps the two worlds/mythologies will connect in some future book. The main characters in this book are fairly typical for a paranormal romance, and (on the plus side) the heroine's angst-filled interior monologues are not about the hero—they are about her brother.