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Friday, September 7, 2012


Author:  Lilith Saintcrow
Plot Type:  DickensianHolmesianSteampunk  
Ratings:  Violence—4; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
           The Iron Wyrm Affair (8/2012)
           The Red Plague Affair (5/2013)  
           The Ripper Affair (8/2014) 

The following novel conforms generally to the mythology of the BANNON & CLARE world, but takes place in the American Old West:  The Damnation Affair (e-book, 12/2012; paperback, 2/2013)

     This post was revised and updated on 9/11/14 to include a review of The Ripper Affair, the third novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the previous novels in the series.      

          NOVEL 3: The Ripper Affair          
     Ever since her falling out with Queen Victrix at the end of The Red Plague Affair, Emma has refused all communications from the palace and has remained secluded within her home for months. As the story opens, she is forced to re-enter the world when Archibald Clare is severely  injured in a terrorist explosion that kills his bodyguard (and Emma's friend), Ludovico (Ludo) Valentinelli. Emma and Mikal bring Clare to her home to convalesce, but when Clare realizes that he was the only survivor of the explosion, he forces Emma to tell him what she did to him when she cured him of the Red plague. When Emma admits that she gave him the gift of immortality (by inserting the Philosopher’s stone in his chest), without asking his permission, Clare is furious because he fears that she has changed his mentathic balance. He now believes that Emma’s actions have caused him to begin Feeling—to have emotional reactions to people and events. This could be catastrophic for him because mentaths are trained to live solely by Reason and Logic—and never to Feel emotions. At one point, Clare is horrified when he has “a most uncharacteristic desire to curse, roundly and loudly. This was the deadliness of Feeling: it swung one about like a weathervane, and made Reason so very difficult.” (p. 131)

     Clare’s innate need for logic drives him to test the limits of his supposed immortality by attempting to kill himself in various ways just to see if he is actually unkillable (e.g., by blowing himself up, bleeding himself dry). This upsets Emma so much that she hires a new minder for Clare: Philip Pico, a quick-witted young man with a scandalous reputation who is a cousin of one of her house staff. Pico’s sardonic and worldly life-view adds an element of humor and diversity to the story.

     Clare is also angryand guilt-riddenbecause he believes that if he had known that he was immortal, he could have thrown himself across Ludo’s body and possibly saved his life during the explosion. Throughout most of the story, Emma and Clare exist in an estranged atmosphere—maintaining a civil, but uncomfortable, relationship as they work together to solve the murder case.

     After sending many, many messages to Emma—all of which she refuses—Queen Victrix shows up at Emma’s house begging for her help. Victrix, who is the vessel of the spirit of Britannia, claims that she is being weakened and drained by an unknown person, a serial killer who is mutilating and murdering prostitutes in Whitchapel. This is a reference to the infamous Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the real Whitechapel in 1888, hence the book’s title, although Saintcrow doesn’t use that nickname in the story itself. (Side note: Serendipitously, recent DNA researchers have apparently discovered the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Click HERE to read about how they did it.)

     The plot focuses on Emma’s attempts to track down the serial killer, deal with her grief over Luda’s death, mend her relationship with Clare, and have a heart-to-heart discussion with Mikal about what he did to her to save her life in The Red Plague Affair. Emma soon figures out that the murders are probably connected in some way to the anonymous sorcerer who helped her out during her trials and tribulations in The Red Plague Affair and that the murderer is also somehow connected to her own past. Saintcrow interweaves all of these story lines seamlessly as she moves the main plot along. Once again, watching the interactions among the characters is almost more fun than watching the main plot play out. There are major changes in personal relationships—between Clare and Emma and especially between Emma and Mikal (finally!). At this point, it is unclear whether we will ever have a full-blown love triangle, mostly because Clare is fighting his Feelings for Emma as hard as he can, and Emma’s feelings toward him are somewhat ambivalent. Another interesting character is an opium-smoking police inspector who despises Emma because she rescued someone from his grasp (Finch, one of her household staff), a man whom the inspector had intended to punish severely—and still would like to capture. If you are a regular reader of this series, you’ll definitely want to read this book because it also provides a peek into Emma’s hardscrabble childhood that helps explain her emotionally conflicted adulthood.

     The big showdown scene is filled with danger and horror as spunky Emma pulls from deep within herself for enough magic to save her own life while Mikal and Clare desperately try to find her before it’s too late. We meet a new, very creepy monster in the form of Maharimat of the Third Host (aka Thin Meg), who feeds off of negative emotions and who has an army of starvlings who literally chew apart any humans they can get their hands and mouths on. Thin Meg, who lives in the sacristy of a desanctified church, plays an important, if peripheral, role in the main plot: “Satin and rotting silk shifted…and the massive bulk [slithered],…resolved into a shape. Just what kind of a shape it was difficult to say, for there were huge folds and bulges, bright blinking eyes, and ivory teeth, yards and yards of cloth, piled, buttoned, and stretched about peeping sickly white flesh….A thick, groaning laugh, cold as leftover black pudding.” (p. 181)

     The logic behind Emma’s putting herself in danger at the end of the book is—to me, anyway—shaky. Emma always plans out her moves carefully and coldly, and self-sacrifice seems out of character for her. I understand the rationale of guilt and compassion that Saintcrow uses to explain Emma’s actions, but I just don’t buy it. It doesn’t ring true. But...the rest of the story is so compelling that I’m willing to give that slight misstep a pass. For me, the real fascination of this series lies in the characters. Although the plots are well conceived and carefully constructed, they are really a framework that Saintcrow uses to amplify and intensify the ebbs and flows in her characters' relationships by allowing us to observe their actions and reactions as they are pressured to solve various mysteries while facing off with a wide range of deviant adversaries. This book is a solid addition to a terrific series. Click HERE to read the first five chapters of The Ripper Affair.  

     Set in the late 1800s steampunk world of Londinium, Britannia (an alternate London, England), the series is more clockwork than steampunk, with Altered humans and animals everywhere, including clockwork horses and petty criminals (aka flashboys) with mechanical eyes, hands, and other body parts. In the spooky, downtrodden Wark district, mechanical rats stalk visitors under the cover of falling ashes and yellow fog. It's as if Saintcrow channeled both Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as she crafted this inventive world. In this mythology, Britannia is the spirit of the Isles, represented on earth by her human vessel, or incarnation, Queen Alexandrina Victrix. Here's a very Dickensian description of foggy Londinium: "The night's fog crouched well past daybreak, peering in windows, fingering pedestrians, cloaking whole streets with blank billowing hangings of thick yellow vapor." (p. 159)

     The saying among the citizens is that "Britannia rests on the backs of sorcery and genius." (p. 15) The sorcerers in this world come in a variety of strengths, from the minor to the major. Here are their ranks:

The Minor Sorcerers
>  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. 
The Common Sorcerers
>  Witches have stronger magical abilities than the previous group, but they cannot split their focus.
The Major Sorcerers: They are much stronger than the previous groups, with the Prime being the strongest
>  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.
     Assisting the sorcerers are their Shields, specially trained warriors with the ability to handle energy drains if their Sorcerer becomes overwhelmed during spell focusing. 

     The series heroine is Emma Bannon, a Prime who is in service directly to Queen Victrix. Emma is an enormously powerful and eccentric Prime sorceress with a reputation for practicing black sorcery, and that has resulted in social isolation. "She was not of the White, whose branches of Discipline encouraged healing. She was not even of the Grey, the seekers of Balance. No, Emma's Discipline was deeply of the Black..." (p. 237) Emma lives in an upscale district of Londinium with a staff of devoted men and women whom she has rescued from various unpleasant circumstances. Each of her household staff is indentured to her in the Londinium tradition, and that indenture is signified by a metal neck collar. Emma has an unusual relationship with her Shield, Mikal. Just before coming under her service several months ago, Mikal killed his former Master, who had kidnapped Emma and was planning to kill her. As book 1 opens, Emma isn't sure that she can entirely trust Mikal, but the two find themselves attracted to one another, both physically and emotionally.

     Mikal is a good-looking, viral warrior who appears to be devoted to keeping Emma safe. His ethnicity is uncertain. Here is one character's first impression of Mikal: "His colour was too dark and his features too aquiline to be properly Britannic. Perhaps Tinkerfolk [gypsy]? Or even from the Indus [India]?" (p. 5) Most of what we lean about Mikal in book 1 comes from Emma's thoughts and from Mikal's frequent selfless actions to protect Emma. In more than one scene, we get the feeling that the feelings between Emma and Mikal have been carried to a more personal level behind closed doors (and off the written page).

     Emma's partner is Dr. Archibald Clare, who is a mentath, a highly intelligent person whose mind runs on deduction, logic, and sciencekind of like Sherlock Holmes on steroids. In the saying that is quoted back in paragraph two (above), the mentaths are the geniuses, who along with the sorcerers, help  to keep Britannia moving forward. Here is Clare's explanation: "Mentaths did not feel as others did; logic was the pleasure they moved towards and irrationality or illogic the pain they retreated from. Emotions were to be subdued, harnessed, accounted for and set on the shelf of deduction." (p. 54) When Clare first meets Emma, he is turned off by her sorcery"the illogical feats such people were capable of performing." (p. 54) Clare requires long, drawn-out sessions of heavy thinking before he can act decisively. Mentaths require constant mental stimulation, and if they can't analyze a situation using deduction, reasoning, and logic, they go a bit crazy. Clare is somewhat stuffy in an upper-class British kind of way, but Clare is smart, good-hearted, and flexible enough to work with Emma, Mikal and all of the other people who get dragged into their cases. By the end of their various travails in book 1, the three have gained a mutual respect for one another.

          NOVEL 1:  The Iron Wyrm Affair          

     As the series opens, Archibald Clare is the only unregistered mentath left alive in Londinium. The rest have been murdered and their bodies disfigured. Sorcerers, too, are dying and/or disappearing. The Queen has ordered Emma to get to the bottom of the situation, so her first step is to take Clare into her custody. The story follows Emma, Clare  and Mikal as they poke into the dark corners of Londinium in search of the villains behind the crimes. As it turns out, there is a multi-layered conspiracy afoot that involves people from the highest and the lowest levels of society. Emma and her crew gradually uncover treachery, betrayal, and the use of dark sorcery. One of the villains of the case is the titular iron wyrm, which in this case is a clockwork dragon. The story is filled with one sorcerous battle after another, involving humansregular and Alteredand mechanized creatures (aka mechs). 

     Although I appreciate the inventiveness of the world-building, I'm afraid that the story-telling left me confused at times. The mythology introduces a number of newly minted words that must be defined solely from context, but the context isn't always provided. In one scene (p. 231), for example, we get a long paragraph describing a busy wharf. The paragraph includes a dense mix of made-up words and real words that slowed me down as I checked their meanings. (Do you know what a hawser is? A hevvymancer? A bullyboy? A coffled Jack Tar? Which words are real and which are not?) While the reader is working on that task, the plot is moving along at an extremely fast clip with little explanation as to where we are heading and why we are going there. 

     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          
     As the book opens, Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, receives a new assignment from Queen Victrix. She is to find a genius physicker (doctor) named John Morris and bring him to the Queen. What the Queen fails to tell Emma is that Morris has initiated a dangerous scheme that will soon lead to many deaths. Meanwhile, Emma's friend, Archibald Clare, is searching for his arch nemesis, Dr. Francis Vance, a diabolically clever criminal mentath who keeps escaping from Clare and his assistant, Ludovico (Ludo) Valentinelli. When Clare has a severe angina attack during a pursuit in the city sewers, Emma takes him and Luda into her home while Clare recovers.

     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)

     Obviously, this is not your average urban fantasy. The plot is complex and circuitous; the conflicts are not all resolved; the characters are complicated and mysterious; and the "twist" ending has some ambiguities. In other words, Saint Crow gives us a complicated puzzle box rather than a neatly wrapped package, and she doesn't give us all of the secrets to getting that puzzle box open. One technique she frequently uses to warn readers of upcoming complications is to mention that a character will later regret having takenor not having takena certain action. These hints provide a casual foreshadowing of future eventsusually catastrophic events. For example, in one scene, Emma and her two Shields (Mikal and Eli) break into Morris's laboratory: "Smashed glass smeared with various crusted substances lay everywhere...More glass crunched like silver bones underfoot, and she did not bother to tell the Shields to move cautiously. Later, she wondered if she should have." That's one of the author's first big hints about an upcoming tragedy involving one of Emma's own.

     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. 

          NOVEL SET IN B&C WORLD: The Damnation Affair            
     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.  

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