The Affinity Bridge/George Mann
Tor Books, 2009
I did not have any expectations for George Mann’s Affinity Bridge. It managed to disappoint me anyway.
I picked the trade paperback steampunk novel up as a “car book.” The cover and the clever design of the back blurbs caught my eye. The book is beautifully presented. I must remember what they say about books and covers. I should also pay more attention to detail, in this case the author’s name. George Mann wrote Ghosts of Manhattan, which Terry Weyna reviewed on Reading the Leaves. If I had remembered her review I would have given this book a pass.
Besides the beautiful cover, Affinity Bridge has the germ of a clever idea; a Holmesian detective who is an Agent of the Crown, his plucky female Dr Watson, in a steampunk world. Only three, or perhaps four, obstacles stand between the idea and the execution; plot, characterization and prose. World building would also come in for some criticism if I were feeling picky.
Plot: In the Whitechapel slums, people are being strangled by a strange “blue glowing policeman.” Just as Newbury and Hobbs, our two protagonists, begin to investigate, Queen Victoria calls them away to solve the mystery of an airship crash. It is immediately clear to the reader that the slum murders and the crash will be connected, and it is soon clear exactly how.
Later on there are chase scenes, and attacks by the “revenants,” zombie-like survivors of a mysterious plague that has shown up in London. Newbury and Hobbs do not drive any of the action. They do not provoke, they do not confront; they do not make choices that up the “ante” for them. For Veronica Hobbs, the feisty female sidekick, this is less of an issue, but Newbury has been presented as a brilliant scholar and investigator of extraordinary deductive powers. He does no detecting. He and Hobbs are the passive victims of these attacks. It is hard to respect main characters who do not drive the action and wait to be acted upon by outside forces.
Characterization: There is no chemistry between Hobbs and Newbury, although Mann is trying to set the stage for a love affair, or at least an attraction. The characters have almost no back-story and what they do emerges on the page only when Mann needs it—“Oh, didn’t I tell you that I grew up in India and I know about this plague?” Villains are too obvious and too stereotypically villainous. The bluff head of Scotland Yard exists as a sounding board for Newbury, occasionally blatting out 1930s-movie-vintage dialogue such as “Good God, man!”
Newbury is a knight (“Sir Maurice Newbury”) yet there is no explanation for this honor, and no real reason to believe he would have it, based on what we are told. I wonder if Mann has confused the honorific “Sir” with “Lord,” a hereditary title, and if he thinks Newbury is aristocracy. This is never explained. Newbury’s background appears colonial, but again, is never explained. Hobbs is even more of a cipher, except that she has a sister who is precognitive. The relationship between these two, a small subplot, is the most authentic in the book.
Prose: Small but consistent grammar errors, awkward sentence structure and uninspired descriptions plague the book. If the writing were vivid and smooth, that would paper over, in effect, many of the book’s other weaknesses, especially because the steampunk concepts are, or at least could be, intriguing. Instead the flat writing enhances the plot flaws and the vapid characterization.
This is, supposedly, the first book of a series. At the very end, we are treated to a surprise about one of the characters, and a discussion between Queen Victoria and one other person that puts in place an over-arching story a la Holmes and Moriarty. It is not enough to trick me into purchasing future books. There are many, many books out there that are more than deserving of “car book” status than these.