Victorian steampunk meets The X-Files, with a soupçon of 28 Days Later, in this series opener by George Mann, best known in SF circles as the editor of the Solaris line. The Affinity Bridge is a charming diversion, though the way Mann borrows so many ideas so liberally from those who've come before him has the unfortunate effect of robbing the tale of the freshness that might have made it something extrasuper special.
It's 1901, and London is a smoggy industrial metropolis where airships slowly amble the skies, the cobblestones rattle to the din of steam powered cars and street trains, and brass-plated automata perform menial duties for their human masters with a frighteningly flawless efficiency that makes them seem more than human. Sir Maurice Newbury does academic work in the British Museum, aided by his new young assistant Veronica Hobbes. But his work there, while serious enough, is merely a front for the duo's real duties. They are special agents to Queen Victoria (here, a steely matriarch who refuses to die, strapped into an elaborate wheelchair equipped with wheezing bellows and primitive life support), tasked with ferreting out supernatural and arcane goings on around the Empire.
Newbury has his work cut out for him at the moment. Not only is there some kind of ghastly zombie plague decimating the denizens of Whitechapel, but a series of murders has petrified the East End. Rumors of a spectral policeman who glows blue as he dispatches his victims by strangulation are spreading like toe fungus among terrified Londoners.
But our intrepid investigators are pulled away from the murder cases by the Queen herself when an airship makes a fiery crash landing in a park. At the scene, Newbury discovers that the automaton pilot is nowhere to be found, and Veronica finds to her horror that the charred human passengers were strapped into their seats like prisoners, even though this was supposed to be a regular commercial flight. So what, pray tell, is afoot? And why is the Crown so interested?
Oh, you'd better believe that those are the foundations of a corker of a story. And in executing the tale, Mann does certain things well, and other things less well. The way he establishes, and then develops, the growing relationship between our two principals is appealing, if all too obviously patterned after the will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension between Mulder and Scully. And the way Mann lets things progress, it's transparent that, as in The X-Files, the eventual resolution to that tension will be "Of course they will, did you have to ask?"
But I must say that I admired the way Mann made Veronica intelligent, driven and strong as a character while avoiding making her an anachronism. I've read more than a few novels set in Victorian times (Caleb Carr's overrated The Alienist leaps to mind), where the female lead is portrayed as this indestructible feminist superheroine, so aggressive, so contemptuous of custom, so single-mindedly driven to be seen as the absolute equal of any male in every way, that you half expect to see her stepping into a ring and clobbering heavyweight prize fighters. Veronica is certainly no shrinking violet. She'll readily grab a hot poker and defend herself against an assailant, and she pulls Newbury out of trouble more than once. But her softer side comes out in her interactions with her institutionalized sister, whose clairvoyant episodes are mistaken for lunacy; in her horror over the deaths in the airship disaster; and in her growing affection for her getting-beaten-up-prone partner and his occasional laudanum binge. In short, Veronica really is an admirable feminist figure, simply because Mann makes her a person and not a symbol.
Mann's prose, on the other hand, does try a bit too hard to capture that Victorian ambience. Its most annoying moments manifest in quirks of language. Mann is way, way too fond of the word "whilst," which I've always thought eye-rollingly twee, and which I don't think I've seen used in an actual Victorian-era novel as much as it's used here. Seriously, you could turn it into a drinking game while reading: take a shot whenever a "whilst" pops up. I guarantee your liver will be hitting you with a restraining order before the book is half-through.
And there are little niggling plot issues that, frankly, I'm surprised an writer who's also an editor let slip into his own fiction. I mean, really, (mild spoiler in white conceal-o-text follows) is it possible that even Victorian policemen would fail to notice that the bodies of multiple murder victims had had their skulls jimmied open and their brains scooped out?
Those of you still enamored of the whole steampunk ethos will find enough to enjoy in The Affinity Bridge to make it worth a couple of rainy afternoons. There are areas where Mann could stand to improve, but the indications that he will are favorable. Though he wears his many influences on his worsted sleeve (I still wonder if the whole "glowing policeman" thing is an inspired homage to The Hound of the Baskervilles), Mann has created a world rich in texture, and given us a likable couple to guide us through it. He knows his way around a sweet zombie fight scene, too. Next time, if Mann just tightens a few gears here and there, oils the pistons, and polishes the flibbertigibbet, then this series will have little trouble hitting full steam.