(2014) Felix Gilman, Corsair, £8.99, pbk, 467pp, ISBN 978-1-472-11327-6
This is a bit of a struggle – both reading the book and knowing whether I can recommend it. To explain...
My problem with reading it was where to place it in my thinking. It started out as Steampunk, then turned into a variation on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, with shades of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and finally turned into Scientific Romance in the style of Jules Verne. (If I have got any of that wrong, please forgive, for it seemed some sort of mish-mash to me).
The 'action' revolves around a recently-made redundant journalist, Arthur Shaw, in the 1890's, and his love-interest Josephine. Looking for work, Arthur is sent to a Mr Gracewell in Deptford, to be engaged in some highly secretive work; vast numbers of people are employed, but all have to sign a gagging agreement. Their work, though highly paid, appears to be mind-numbingly dull (copying numbers and letters into ledgers), but there is a high turn-over of staff and many seem to be incapacitated by the work they do. Arthur disappears from view, so over-taken by the work. The Steampunk element becomes clear as Gracewell's operation is called his Engine, and Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace are invoked.
His fiancée, Josephine, becomes drawn into a secret occult world by a Lord Atwood, which is intent on contact with life on other planet's in the solar system. It transpires that the work that Arthur and the others have been doing contributes to these attempts. There is an inner circle, which engages in esoteric practices, and Josephine is integral to this. And there's the Hermetic Order...
Following a disaster at Gracewell's, Arthur becomes free to be part of this new and potentially dangerous world; there is a strange episode set in the dining room of the Savoy Hotel, where there is a 'joust' between two magicians (one, a Mrs Archer, is part of the inner circle), which was just a little silly – I was reminded of the scene in the Disney film The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin and Madam Mim fight. So that's Jonathan Strange...ticked off.
In one of the meetings at Lord Atwell's, Arthur is shown a winged creature, which has been brought to Earth from Mars during one of the circles 'séances' (it's difficult to know how to describe them), but it dies before they can communicate with it. And then Arthur stumbles; he bursts into one of the circle's meetings while they are investigating Mars and Josephine is in a trance. The circle is broken, and Josephine's 'spirit' gets stuck there. Her body appears to be in some sort of catatonic state, but her mind is elsewhere – Mars.
The rest of the book is taken up with getting her back. And here Jules Verne kicks in. Eventually, a large group are transported to Mars in the same way as Josephine. She in the meantime has been transformed into one of the winged creatures, and forgetting her earthly life, is involved in attacks on the creatures from earth who have invaded her world. Many of the party die, and Arthur, in trying to rescue Josephine, 'falls'. Josephine returns to earth, but not Arthur.
As I said at the beginning, I'm not sure about this book. It's easy to read, but very convoluted; there are lots of ideas, but I'm not really sure they work together. And the (almost) last section, set on Mars went on too long, while the very ending came too quick. It has a quote from Stephen Donaldson on the front, and I remember feeling a bit the same when I read his first trilogy back in the early Eighties, but he carved a niche for himself. So you pays your money...
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