P.N. Elrod has had a career of respectable length. She’s published more than twenty novels since 1990—twelve of them in the acclaimed “Vampire Files” series, set in 1930s Chicago—and edited or co-edited half-a-dozen anthologies. The Hanged Man is the first book in a new series, set in late 19th century Britain, and involving the investigations and the adventures of Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury, an agent of Her Majesty’s Psychic Service.
It’s also the first book by P.N. Elrod I’ve ever read, and honesty compels me to admit that it proved unexpectedly appealing. Delightful, even.
(Some spoilers below…)
The 19th century of The Hanged Man is an alternate history as well as fantasy one. (Gaslamp fantasy, I think is the term: airships and gaslamps and magic, but a rather lighter emphasis on steam and clockwork and industry than the steampunk aesthetic prefers.) In this continuity, HRM Queen Victoria proved rather more of a progressive—even a feminist!—than our version. Marrying a British peer instead of her Saxon cousin Prince Albert, this Victoria not only instituted a Psychic Service but master-minded the extension of a universal franchise to women in 1859. So it is that at Christmas 1879, when The Hanged Man is set, Alex Pendlebury enjoys most of the rights and privileges of her male peers—fortunately for her.
Alex is a Reader, one of a handful of people who can receive psychic impressions from objects and people. The nature of her abilities means she is frequently called to the scene of suspicious deaths to assist Scotland Yard with their inquiries—as she is at two am on Christmas morning. The scene initially looks like suicide by hanging, but Alex quickly discerns it is, in fact, murder. A murder for which she can read no trace of the murderer: implausible, and unprecedented.
Worse is to come. Alex hasn’t seen or heard from her father in ten years. She doesn’t take well to learning that he’s the murder victim, living in London under the alias of Dr. Kemp. When the senior-most officer of the Psychic Service, Lord Richard Desmond, arrives on the scene and is immediately attacked by masked men carrying air rifles—when he’s killed, and Alex is taken off the case—Alex refuses to be sidelined. There are conspiracies afoot, and dark threats to Queen, Country, and the Psychic Service. And Alex, with the partially-willing assistance of the prescient Lieutenant Brooks, is determined to thwart them.
Or at least get to the bottom of what the hell her father was doing in London.
The Hanged Man is something of an oddball novel. It begins by appearing like a murder mystery, indulges in a passing flirtation with running gun battles in the streets, dives head-first into treasonous conspiracies and exclusive secretive clubs, and makes more than a brief nod towards pulp and the penny dreadful. This recipe lends itself well to a fast-paced—indeed, hectic—narrative, but one that occasionally seems to bowl its reader spinning balls just for the delight of seeing them fumble to catch up. I think that metaphor got rather away from me—much like the parts of The Hanged Man that introduced a man who can shapeshift into a tiger as well as ape-men from another dimension who pass into the London of the story through mirrors.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the experience. The Hanged Man‘s approach to narrative makes for a tense ride, and a batshit entertaining one. Psychics? Yes. Prophecies? Yes. Blood in the streets? Of course! Extradimensional travel? BRING HOME THE APE-MEN. Orgies? Sure, why not. Family drama? FIGHT. It matches well with Elrod’s approach to alternate history here, which preserves the gaslamp aesthetic while creating much more modern social sensibilities. (This is likely to prove a disappointment to those of us who prefer to see historical sensibilities interrogated in their context, but it does make a much more straightforward adventure narrative possible here.)
Alex Pendlebury proves a compelling main character—a very modern Victorian woman, determined, competent, with an interesting career and an interesting background. The other characters that make an appearance in the narrative, with one or two exceptions, all come across with vivid flair. The exception, alas, is Lieutenant Brooks, whose (wholly predictable) role as a prospective love interest for Alex is clear almost from his first appearance, and who never really seems to come into his own as a character. The arc of attraction feels almost like an afterthought: it doesn’t feel earned.
That aside, The Hanged Man is an engaging, entertaining novel, and a whole lot of fun. I look forward to the sequel.
The Hanged Man is available May 19th from Tor Books.