George Mann, writer of several Doctor Who audio scripts and novels, editor of several SFF and mystery anthologies, and creator of the noir mystery series The Ghost, sets his sight on Victorian London with The Executioner’s Heart (excerpt here). The fourth in the Newbury & Hobbes series, it opens a little while after the incidents in The Immorality Engine. Inspector Bainbridge has a series of terrible, gruesome, inexplicable murders on his hands. Victims with no discernable connections are turning up all over town, chests cracked open and hearts removed. Without a motive or suspect, Bainbridge retains the services of his old friends, brilliant Sir Maurice Newbury and his devoted assistant Veronica Hobbes.
Veronica has been occupied with looking for a non-Newbury-dependent cure for her dying psychic sister, Amelia. Newbury, meanwhile, is drowning his pain with excessive amounts of opium, tobacco, and absinthe. His occult-based “medication” of Amelia may be more dangerous and life-threatening than anyone planned. To make matters more complicated, Newbury is soon also hired by Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, to investigate his mother, Queen Victoria, while subsequently being retained by the Queen herself to investigate a possible German threat to her empire.
More frightening than all of this personal chaos is The Executioner. She is a literal killing machine, an implacable, inexorable French relic from a century past. Her body is covered in intricate tattoos inlaid with precious metals. These embedded demonic sigils and ritualistic symbols keep her physically alive but emotionally dead. She is a hired mercenary who confiscates the heart of each victim as a token to remind her of the life she once had.
That description sounds really cool, right? A turn-of-the-century serial killer playing chestburster, roaming the streets of London while being hunted by a world-weary, drugged-up, Sherlock Holmes wannabe engaged in risky black magic. His assistant is a clever, spunky young woman who would do anything for the people she loves. There’s the Queen who, by this stage, is half machine and almost entirely mad, and her arrogant, selfish, and volatile son clamoring for her throne. Not to mention the violent, undead assassin making clockwork trophies of internal organs. All those seemingly fascinating characters thrust together should make for a thrilling novel full of Steampunk-y mystery and supernatural intrigue, right? How could Mann go wrong with all that awesomeness roiling around on the page? Well, here’s the thing: Mann doesn’t go wrong, but he does produce a work less exciting than it should be.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the Newbury & Hobbes books prior to The Executioner’s Heart. I’d heard of the series, and I’m a big fan of Steampunk, though I rarely indulge—I like the idea of the subgenre, but generally find the application of it to be less than satisfying. This was my chance to give Steampunk another try, and to do so with two of my other favorite tropes: graphically violent serial killers and Sherlock Holmes-tinged mysteries. Sadly, the Steampunk elements were more mise-en-scène than thematic. Yes, The Executioner is powered by a clockwork machine, but she’s alive because of the magical tattoos. There also wasn’t enough occult to really call the book a fantasy. It was dribbled around and mentioned, but we don’t get to see anyone do a spell or summoning. It’s mentioned in roundabout ways or conducted offstage, which deflates the impact.
The plot suffers from too much roundabout-ness as well. Because we already know who, if not exactly what, the killer is from the prologue and interstitials, sifting through 200 pages of the main characters struggling for clues gets dull very quickly. None of the clues they uncover bring them any closer to sorting out The Executioner; Newbury has to be told about her by another character in a scene that exists solely as an infodump. This takes place between other infodumps that appear in the form of The Executioner’s interstitials, which create a ridiculously detailed background for her that ultimately proves unnecessary and meaningless.
Moreover, Mann’s plot machinations tend to rely on lucky discoveries rather than hard detective work. Newbury, Bainbridge, and Hobbes are all attempting to investigate the executions, the Queen’s lies, and a possible war lead by the Kaiser, but every piece of information they uncover comes from some rando turning up at the exact right moment with the exact knowledge needed. And then that particular investigation is over because all the answers were given by this one person. No one “solves” the mysteries. Someone tells the leads (and audience) everything they could ever possibly want to know. As a mystery buff, this was a let down. Part of the fun is both trying to unscramble the puzzle and watching the leads do the same with less information than we have.
As an aside, 99% of the characters are middle to upper class, and every last one is white and cishet. Equally worth noting is that none of the female characters have any personal agency. The men do all the work, get all the action, and have all the intellectual debates. The women have things done or happen to them by male characters, and when they do act on their own accord, the decisions they make and actions they take are in aid of a man. Even The Executioner is puppeted by her male employer and trapped in her personal hell because of her misguided father. I want to make it clear that I don’t hold Mann in contempt for enforcing these tropes. Rather, the more we draw attention to them across the literature and media landscapes, the more creators will start diversifying their works.
I suspect much of my dissatisfaction has little to do with Mann’s (high) authorial ability and more to do with it being the fourth book in the series. Middle books—Mann plans on at least six Newbury & Hobbes novels—like middle seasons of television, tend to be weaker than those at the beginning or end. Mann does a good job of immersing you into his world, which isn’t easy this far into a series. You risk boring your long-time fans by constantly restating backstories and previous plots, or alienating your new readers by not giving them anything to go on. I never felt lost or confused, and he drizzled just enough background to entice me to go back and check out book 1.
Mann’s writing style is engaging and entertaining. The action sequences are a little straightforward, but well-choreographed. The quick pacing keeps the scenes flowing and the book moving along. The characters are well fleshed out, even if they aren’t given much to do. They have personalities rather than stock traits and quirks. The most disappointing for me was Veronica, for reasons stated above, and I would’ve liked to see the characters use the smarts they so clearly have rather than relying on being told the answers. But they were still fun to be around. Part Sherlock Holmes, part Steampunk, part supernatural fantasy, and part gory murder mystery, The Executioner’s Heart is, if nothing else, enjoyable. The book was fun, and sometimes that’s enough. On that note, I’m off to the library to pick up The Affinity Bridge.
The Executioner’s Heart is available now from Tor Books.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.