The Ripper Affair is the latest instalment in Lilith Saintcrow’s “Bannon and Clare” steampunk mystery series, after The Iron Wyrm Affair and The Red Plague Affair. Well, I say “steampunk,” but Saintcrow’s world isn’t content to be an alternate Victorian England with flashier gadgets, more airships, and magic: her England isn’t England at all, but a greatly altered facsimile, where the capital is Londinium and Britannia, the “spirit of rule,” inhabits the mortal flesh of the woman who sits upon the throne.
After the events of The Red Plague Affair, sorceress Emma Bannon’s formerly good working relationship with her sovereign is rather irreparably broken—this is what happens when the queen decides to cover up a plague that members of her government thought it’d be a fine thing to cause. Mentath Archibald Clare is unaware of the tension between his sorceress friend and the crown. As The Ripper Affair opens, he’s testifying in court.
Then a bomb goes off.
The bomb, and the bombers—this world’s version of Irish terrorists*—will not re-enter our narrative again. They exist to rob Clare of his friend Valentinelli, and cause it to be revealed to him that during the events of The Red Plague Affair, Bannon afflicted him with immortality. This leads to a certain amount of strain in their odd friendship—strain compounded by their different approaches to the problem that’s put in front of them.
*And isn’t it nice to know some things never change, no matter how different a version of the 19th century it may be?
For when Bannon returns home from retrieving Clare from the rubble, her sovereign is doing the royal equivalent of waiting on her doorstep. Bannon’s assistance is requested and required by her sovereign in solving a pressing problem: the ruling spirit of Britain’s power is being drained—and it’s connected to a series of murders. Murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel, where the victims are found with organs missing.
Bannon’s reluctant to ever work for the queen again. But she takes up the challenge—because Clare expects it of her, and because, had circumstances been different, she herself might have spent her life as one of Whitechapel’s whores. Secrets, mysteries, violent magical encounters, and a man without a face combine in a fast-paced romp through (and underneath) the dangerous streets of Londinium-town.
Saintcrow has previously demonstrated a willingness to mix and match her quasi-Victorian influences. Archibald Clare and the concept of the “mentath” owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, and previous volumes included characters influenced by Rudyard Kipling and the Victorian penny dreadful. Here Jack the Ripper meets Spring-Heeled Jack in the faceless murderer of Whitechapel’s women, and the reader takes a brief tour of Londinium’s Scotland Yard—and the city’s opium dens. And we learn more about Emma Bannon’s history.
But as with other entries in this series, the rattling pace and parade of interesting grotesqueries doesn’t quite succeed in distracting this particular reader from the array of never-to-be-answered questions. Or from the tantalising incompleteness of emotional developments between the major characters. There is the outline of an arc between Bannon and her bodyguard, Mikal, but what development and resolution it gets is sketchy at best. Likewise, the development of matters between Bannon and Clare. (Not that I intend to imply anything like a love triangle: let’s be clear on this point, there’s no romance. That’s a definite point in The Ripper Affair’s favour, by me.) Too much is left to uncontrolled implication... although perhaps I merely have a tidy mind, and prefer a neater sense of emotional direction in character arcs.
To be honest, The Ripper Affair is a diverting popcorn read: messy, granular, and inclined to leave distracting bits clinging to your hair.* It’s not deep, and at times it’s downright annoying—but mostly it’s satisfying fun.
*Maybe that’s just me and popcorn. No, I don’t know how I manage it when my hair is this short either.
The Ripper Affair is available August 19th from Orbit.