The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Book 1), by George Mann
The Affinity Bridge is steampunk done well, and I say that as someone who has sampled a fair amount of steampunk. George Mann breathes some life into a sidelined, misunderstood subgenre and creates a novel that’s easy to read. Because his story also keeps one foot solidly in the mystery genre, it’s a gentle introduction both to steampunk and a fun pseudohistorical universe.
The plot follows Sir Maurice Newbury, a researcher, occult specialist, and secret detective for the Crown. At his side is the lovely and clever Veronica Hobbes, his personal assistant at the British Museum. Their adventure begins when Sir Maurice offers to help the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard unravel a mysterious series of murders in the London slums. The situation becomes more complicated when reports surface of a murderous glowing policeman and a zombie-like disease in parts of the city. Soon thereafter, an airship crashes in the middle of the city with all passengers found dead, mysteriously tied into their seats. The investigation deepens, and Maurice and Veronica are rapidly forced to confront danger head-on and, in some cases, fight for their lives.
The novel is an enjoyable salute to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Sir Maurice is an investigator who also happens to be addicted to sedatives, which initially seems unimaginative. George Mann, however, is neither new to writing nor a stranger to Sherlock Holmes, so it seems more likely that he knows precisely what he’s doing. As a tribute to Doyle’s great detective, Maurice feels like a familiar character, giving readers a safe anchor from which they can view the unfamiliarity of steampunk Victorian London.
Mann gets more creative with Veronica’s portrayal, but he makes it refreshing. As a young, attractive female sidekick to a knowledgeable male, she initially seems doomed to fill the “un-empowered woman” stereotype common in many Victorian female characters. Thankfully, the story banishes those fears. Veronica acts how she pleases and goes where she wants (although sometimes under Newbury’s request). She is a proper lady, a trait necessary for a story set in Victorian England, but she does not hesitate to throw convention aside and get her hands dirty, even protecting Newbury in some situations. There are times when her empowerment diminishes, but the novel’s conclusion unarguably makes her Newbury’s equal.
To make things even better, the setting is excellent. Steampunk often combines old technology, such as carriages and wind-powered ships, with new technology, like airships and motor vehicles. The Affinity Bridge doesn’t disappoint: massive zeppelins lumber across the sky, while carriages and steam-carriages clatter and rumble through the streets. The bad parts of London feel dirty and foreboding, and the good parts are bright and progressive.
Mann creates this environment without overstating it or indulging common tropes. Fortunately, he neglects creating excess amounts of what some writers have termed “alternate history wank.” He further avoids the trope of edgy, explicit content that has become prevalent in steampunk works. Even the mystical and the occult are basically absent despite Sir Maurice’s expertise, preventing the novel from falling into the steam-fantasy genre that’s already been well-explored in various media.
Because the story’s setting is well-constructed, its danger feels real and important. It quickly becomes clear that the heroes are truly in peril when they’re in peril. The stakes are high, and that leads to some wonderfully tense moments.
Unfortunately, The Affinity Bridge struggles in a few areas. The deficiencies don’t ruin the book, but at times they’re distracting. Plot pacing in the novel is staggered. Events move slowly one moment and frantically the next. While that helps the action scenes to feel more chaotic, it occasionally slows the rest of the book. Similarly cumbersome are many occasions where Mann’s diction gets repetitive. As a grammar fanatic, I realize most people won’t scrutinize it as harshly, but parts stand out even to the casual eye. The phrase “in situ” appears no less than four times in the novel, and it occurs twice in one chapter. It doesn’t greatly detract from everything; however, it gets tiresome, and it would have been nice to see Mann evaluate it and similar phrases more closely.
The Affinity Bridge is well-constructed and decently executed. Readers who approach the book expecting a piece of fine art will be greatly disappointed, but readers who approach it looking to be entertained will easily find a few hours of fun. As much as steampunk writers like to offer a heavy social commentary, it’s nice to get away from that and create a lighter story. Mann does exactly that, and it’s much appreciated.
The Affinity Bridge
By George Mann
336 pp. Tor Books, reprinted April 2010. $14.99