The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann
The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann (Tor, 2013) is the fourth in the series featuring Newbury & Hobbes, i.e. Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes. Those of you familiar with the reviewing style will know I never stoop to simplistic headlining. So this is not a steampunk Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery thriller. Its rather more subtle than that. The temptation to see this as following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle flows from the decision to set these stories in a version of Victorian England about the same time as the Great Detective ruled the fictional waves from Baker Street. So this author has an investigator who is not averse to abusing the poppy, tobacco and absinthe, lurking in a part of London. Because all those who aspire to investigative greatness need an assistant, he’s joined in his endeavours by a spunky woman who fights and shoots in the best female style (think Elementary which applies the same logic to produce a so far platonic pairing for an explicit Holmes and Watson).
If Victorian science is going to get bent out of shape, it’s not unnatural that there would be social change. Some move towards gender equality is therefore to be expected. Yet, strangely, that has not happened in the broader society described here. Even when Veronica is recognised as in immediate danger and the best course of action would be for her to occupy the same house as Sir Maurice, they all worry about what such a move would do to her reputation. This is a slight dissonance, almost an anachronism. In the real world, the watershed Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 had begun to dismantle the patriarchal assumption that women could not own property or keep the money they earned. If an author shows technology driving change in everyday life at an ever faster rate, why is this not also destablising the culture? With a Queen on the throne and women working as spies and in other capacities representing the interests of the Crown, greater freedom than allowed in 1882 would seem inevitable. There would also be significant impacts arising from the adoption of technology into industry. There would be new jobs to learn requiring an improvement in the education service, and many old jobs would be eliminated by automation leading to unemployment and greater poverty. So this book is almost exclusively upper class and dominated by white men (spunky sidekicks notwithstanding), and the culture is set is aspic without regard to the environment in which it has been preserved.
Of course, this is unfair. I have started on the fourth book in the series. The social dynamics may be explored in the earlier books. So what does the book actually offer? Well, in genre terms, our investigator blurs the line between conventional investigator and occult detective. Here the primary focus is on a serial killer whose signature is cracking open the rib cage and extracting the hearts of her victims as trophies, and the activities of German spies intent on stealing the basis of lasers as a “death beam” weapon. Yet the supernatural is never far away. In the last book, our duo rescued Amelia, Veronica’s psychic sister. Because he’s been able to steal a book of magic from the local Cabal, Sir Maurice is able to treat her, but the price is that he has now taken on the burden of her ability as a seer. They both now dream of the titular Executioner and see Veronica to be at risk.
As steampunk, there’s a range of technology emerging from the expected automobiles, airships and clockwork automatons, to genetic manipulation, cloning and steps towards prolonging life. But interestingly, technology on its own is shown as inadequate to make the required progress at the speed desired. Hence, the Executioner has been converted into a form of cyborg by the joint application of the mechanical and the supernatural. The heart itself may be clockwork, but the runes and other symbols inlaid into her flesh in ink and precious metals signify a different form of partnership to prolong her life. Just as the personality of the woman transformed undergoes a dramatic change, so the body of Queen Victoria is being sustained by machines while her mind is allowed to age without intervention. This may make her appear less acute as leader. Hence her son, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales and interested factions in government are positively investigating whether the Queen is actually fit to rule.
All this gives the author the chance to write something really exciting and, at times, there are some genuinely pleasing set-pieces with dark hints as to other forces at work. But it does not quite cohere. The reason? I think there are two problems. The first is the steampunk elements seem incidental rather than integrated into the social fabric being described. For example, the menagerie constructs and predatory birds are just there for a brief effect and as props in the generally excellent fight scene that follows. There’s no attempt to explore how such innovations might affect society. Even the Executioner as a walking-talking embodiment of the steampunk trope fails because supernatural powers keep her body preserved as a young, athletic woman as the decades go by. Yet the fantasy side of the novel is also peripheral. Instead of the supernatural given full prominence, this is more a political thriller with an investigative duo who are rather more reactive and positive in solving the case(s). Which, of course points to the second problem. The book is promising to give us a Holmesian detective but, apart from lolling around in a drugged state, there’s very little to show this character draws on the Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, Sir Maurice doesn’t really solve the Executioner case. He has to be told who she is and others work out where she’s hiding. Worse, in structural terms, we have a prologue that removes much of the potential suspense. That it happens to be very well written does not excuse the loss of suspense when Veronica finally decides to go to “the” address. So we end up with a scattergun of different genre tropes fired into the book and, because none of them are fully exploited, The Executioner’s Heart ends up slightly underwhelming. This is not to deny there are some excellent moments. But this is a sum of parts novel, not a great whole. Perhaps that’s the fate of all books numbered four in a projected sequence of six.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.