Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead by George Mann

Sherlock-Holmes-Will-of-the-Dead-By-George-MannSherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead
By George Mann
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781160015
2013; $12.95 trade paperback; $7.99 ebook

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE WILL OF THE DEAD continues Titan Books’ series of new Sherlock Holmes pastiches that are notable for their inclusion of steampunk or other science fictional elements. George Mann is no stranger to Holmes: he has edited a collection of Holmes stories (ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, also from Titan Books). Titan will be publishing another of Mann’s Holmes novels (THE SPIRIT BOX) and a second edited collection of stories (FURTHER ENCOUNTERS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) later in 2014. His pedigree for Victorian mysteries is strengthened by his authorship of the popular Newbury and Hobbes series (five published so far, beginning with THE AFFINITY BRIDGE, plus another couple short story collections) and his editorial direction of two Sexton Blake collections. Given all of that, this should be an exciting new Sherlock Holmes novel, but unfortunately, it’s merely good but not great.

The mystery begins simply enough: a wealthy old man dies in a fall down the stairs leaving a handful of nephews and a niece behind. His will is nowhere to be found. It all seems ordinary enough, but clearly Sherlock Holmes sees more to the story than the reader does because he immediately agrees to investigate the case. Here we come to the crux of the problem: the major weakness of the novel is that it is essentially composed of two separate plots that are seemingly unconnected until the very end. The first plot is what seems to be a simple, run-of-the-mill inheritance dispute after a man dies and his will disappears. The second plot is a rash of brazen home invasions by a group of “iron men” who smash their way into the homes of the wealthy and carry off valuables occurring at the same time as the inheritance dispute. We only know about the iron men at all because Watson periodically reads about the latest home invasion in the newspaper and asks Holmes if maybe he might want to help the police with that case. The reader wonders the same thing. While obviously fantastical, the case of the iron men certainly sounds more interesting than the dull inheritance mystery. So why isn’t the book about the second plot instead of the first? Having read the novel, I just don’t know why Mann chose to virtually ignore the fun and steampunky plot for a very run-of-the-mill one – he has certainly never shied away from the fantastical in his other novels.

Sherlockian purists might also be a little annoyed with the injections of some chapters that are accounts of key events told from the perspective of characters other than Watson or Holmes. Mann even feels the need to append an apology to the front of the book for this, so while this didn’t bother me, I wonder why he didn’t choose to restructure the narrative to avoid this practice entirely, as these accounts add very little to the story. Periodic anachronisms of speech are peppered throughout the book, often leading me to think that Mann never did capture the dialogue of Holmes and Watson. It’s a minor quibble, but it was distracting at times.

I wanted to like this book a great deal more than I did. Characterization remained shallow throughout, and the dialogue was sometimes just jarring enough that it proved a distraction. Those weren’t fatal flaws; my only significant criticism was that the book was, for the most part, all too mundane and boring. Throughout, I often asked myself why Holmes wasn’t interested in getting involved in the iron men case. Robots seem to be rampaging through the streets of London, and instead of reading about that, we’re left with a plot that pales in comparison with the events we know are occurring off-stage at the same time. Recommended mainly for those who are big fans of George Mann’s work and those who really crave new pastiches of Sherlock Holmes.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove

Stuff of Nightmares_final_3Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares
By James Lovegrove
Titan Books
ISBN: 978-1781165416
2013; $14.95 trade paperback; $9.99 ebook

I’ve been a Sherlockian for a very long time. Of course the canonical works are great, but I also enjoy the wealth of pastiches that are available. Some authors have genuinely refreshing takes on the classic characters and tropes (Nicholas Meyer and Laurie King come to mind) while some fall well short of the mark, often by ether rehashing old ground pointlessly or diverging too far from the canonical stories until Watson and Holmes are almost unrecognizable. Titan Books is publishing (and in some cases, republishing) a line of Holmes novels that include some fantastical elements, this one among them. I wasn’t sure how I’d like James Lovegrove penning a new Sherlock Holmes tale. I have nothing against Lovegrove at all – he’s an accomplished and prolific writer – but I know him as a writer of science fiction. Would he diverge too far from the canon to present an entertaining and recognizable Holmes? The answer is a resounding no: James Lovegroves’ SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES is a very well done and enjoyable read while introducing some delightful SF elements that don’t get in the way of a good story.

The opening premise is a very solid one: London is beset by a series of terrorist bombings that kill dozens of innocents. Watson himself is nearly killed when Waterloo Station is blown up. Holmes believes that his old foe Professor Moriarty may be involved in some way, but there’s clearly a wide-reaching nefarious plot at work that threatens the very foundations of the British Empire (and Queen Victoria herself). Meanwhile, a vigilante calling himself Baron Cauchemar (“Nightmare,” en français), clad in armor and wielding strange weapons, is likewise terrorizing criminals in London’s seedy underworld. Are the bombings and this new crimefighter related? Holmes certainly thinks so. He and Watson are brought in to see what they can do, ultimately running afoul of a truly despicable villain (whose identity I won’t spoil, though you won’t have any trouble figuring it out).

I should note that this is a very cinematic, over-the-top steampunk action thriller, particularly in the finale. Again, I don’t want to spoil key plot points, but while this begins with a more or less standard kind of Holmes mystery, it very quickly becomes a mash-up with some of the wildest imaginings of Jules Verne mixed in liberally. If you’re looking for a staid piece of detective work, you won’t find that here. While I enjoyed all the science fictional elements included, I should reiterate that because they are truly over-the-top they might not suit all readers.

In the second half of the novel some of the diction doesn’t sit quite right with me – at times, Holmes doesn’t really sound like Holmes – but in general, I think that Lovegrove has done an admirable job of capturing the spirit and flavor of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, at several points Lovegrove goes out of his way to provide nods to several of the iconic characters and offer his take on several of the inconsistencies that readers have identified in the original Holmes canon.

Lovegrove is a darn good writer who demonstrates his skills here. This is a quick read and a fast-paced, engaging story. I heartily recommend THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES to fans of steampunk – you won’t be disappointed – as well as fans of Sherlock Holmes who don’t mind mixing a heavy dose of Vernian steam-powered craziness in with their detective work.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

I enjoy both the Victorian era as a historical period and the now-popular steampunk genre, so this book was an obvious choice for me. Sadly, it though it came well-reviewed, the book was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Minor plot spoilers follow.

The world of The Bookman is a familiar one for fans of steampunk fiction: an alternate Victorian Britain filled with Babbage-inspired gadgets, automatons, and ubiquitous airships. There are, to be sure, some differences in what we might expect. For one, the British royal family and much of the aristocracy are a bunch of humanoid lizards. The prime minister is Moriarty and the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard is Irene Adler. And a terrorist calling himself “the Bookman” is blowing stuff up with bombs disguised as books. Sounds like a great premise, doesn’t it? That’s just the background for the novel. The story itself revolves around a young man named Orphan, tangentially involved in a political dissident group, gets involved in some intrigue when his fiancée is killed in one of the Bookman’s bombings.

For fans of Victorian era fiction, numerous characters from the literature make cameos, including several characters from the Holmes Canon (Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Sebastian Moran), as well as Flashman, among many others. Here, too, we see many actual historical figures, including Jules Verne and Karl Marx. Some of these characters play major roles (e.g., Adler, Marx), while others function more as “Easter eggs” for more bookish or historically-minded readers. At one point in the story there is also a lengthy list of unusual books that Orphan encounters, among them The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein (which really amused me). I absolutely did not catch all the literary references included in this list of titles and authors, and those more learned than I should be able to figure out the origins of each.

Thus far, based on that description, you’d expect that I’d soundly endorse this book, wouldn’t you? Sadly, I cannot. At times, the plot seemed to move at an almost glacial pace, just meandering along for the most part, and the setting – unusual as it is – required a good deal of set-up (this is unfortunately a common problem with science fiction tales, since the settings are wholly or partially unfamiliar to the reader). The characters, in particular the protagonist Orphan, are only thinly sketched. I never particularly came to know or like Orphan, and to be honest, I never especially cared what happened to him.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. It includes a lot of elements I enjoy – steampunk, Victoriana, bibliophilia, etc. – but they just weren’t enough to make this more than a merely mediocre book. This is definitely a case where the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. Though most reviews of the book have been positive, I didn’t enjoy The Bookman enough to recommend it or pick up the forthcoming sequel. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Review: Steamunk Prime, edited by Mike Ashley

Steampunk Prime provides a collection of fourteen British “proto-steamwork” short stories from the late Victorian and Edwardian era that include a number of science fictional elements that we have come to describe as characteristic of steampunk fiction. Though all the works now reside in the public domain, I suspect that most readers – like me – will not have previously encountered many (or any) of these stories. This anthology does exactly what I like anthologies to do: provide a decent-sized (usually a solid page) essay preceding each story that introduces both the author and the story, providing some context and an initial foray at dissecting the major themes of the story (while not spoiling the story, of course). Mike Ashley, our fearless editor, has graciously provided such essays here and I very much appreciate them, never having encountered any of the stories or authors before picking up this collection.

Please note that the below short discussions may contain spoilers.

Foreword by Paul di Filippo and Introduction by Mike Ashley: Both were short essays (perhaps too short) that set the stage for the stories that follow but not much else unfortunately.

Mr. Broadbent’s Information by Henry A. Hering (1909): A short tale about a mad scientist who creates automatons and animals with enhanced intelligence. Of course, he’s a proper Victorian gentleman. A nice little story, despite the fact that the mad science mostly happens off-stage.

The Automaton by Reginald Bacchus and Ranger Gull (1900): Another tale about an automaton, one remarkably similar to the real chess-playing “Turk.” This one has a surprise twist ending that I found to be reminiscent of Poe. A good piece.

The Abduction of Alexandra Seine by Fred C. Smale (1900): The story opens with a Victorian nonchalantly popping a cocaine lozenge into his mouth, so you know it’s going to be a good period piece. It’s an alternate steampunk future, set sometime after 1930 when there’s apparently been a huge siege of Paris. Everyone has an aircar, there’s constant real-time aerial surveillance imagery of all of England, and they’ve got access to long-distance telepathic communications devices. The actual adventure is melodramatic to the Nth degree, but I enjoyed this alternate future presented.

The Gibraltar Tunnel by Jean Jaubert (1914): Posits the creation of both the Chunnel and its successor, another undersea tunnel connecting Spain with Morocco and what happens to the inaugural train through the Gibraltar tunnel. Action-adventure story with minimal characterization, but not bad.

From Pole to Pole by George Griffith (1904): Poignant tale about the first expedition to reach the South Pole. They aren’t particularly interested in doing that just for the heck of it, however. They’re venturing there because they plan to travel through the tunnel that goes through the center of the Earth and pop out through the other side at the North Pole. Some interesting, utterly impractical science is involved. Fun.

In the Deep of Time by George Parsons Lathrop (1897): This was a rather long work that involves a Victorian man being placed in suspended animation and awoken three hundred years later (one would think the first test run of such a technology would involve animals and probably a much shorter period of time than three hundred years, but I won’t quibble too much with the story set-up). The Victorian then travels around the world of 2200 AD and sees all the amazing technologies that have been adopted and the effects of them on society. Some are surprisingly prescient, others risible (e.g., they never discovered refrigeration and send up liquid water in balloons to high altitude where it freezes and is then brought down as ice). They’ve also just made contact with the sapient race that lives on Mars, and as it turns out, the Martians are superior to humans in every way. Some interesting ideas here, but might have been more engaging had it been about half the length, and I’m not sure that we needed the plot with the technically and morally superior Martians.

The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace (1899): Not all that “steampunk-y” of a tale (save that the villain uses a piece of technology to commit a crime), but nevertheless a very good Victorian mystery. This is actually the sixth chapter of The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings, a novel composed of stories that seem to work well independently, so the title of it really should be “The Star Shaped Marks.” It was interesting enough that I plan to seek out the rest of that collection (it’s available online).

The Plague of Lights by Owen Oliver (1904): An extremely creepy “end of the world” kind of scenario involving inexplicable alien forces and a complete breakdown of British society. I liked it.

What the Rats Brought by Ernest Favenc (1903-04): The only dud in the book. Some strange plague is brought to the shores of Australia via rats (and bats?) on a derelict ship with no one aboard (very reminiscent of the Russian ship, the Demeter, in Dracula). Sadly, though, the plague comes and goes and it’s not really even particularly clear what’s going on or why the reader should care.

The Great Catastrophe by George Davey (1910): In some ways this is more a vignette than a true story, as it is an account of what happened when a “future” (from the perspective of 1910) London that increasingly relied on electricity experienced when some unknown problem caused massive death and destruction, killing almost the entire population of the city. The cause is left unknown, and it provides a cautionary tale about over-reliance on poorly-understood technologies. I found it to be pretty riveting.

Within an Ace of the End of the World by Robert Barr (1900): This is an odd little story. Malthus was right and the Earth starts running out of food, so we learn how to create synthetic food using the nitrogen in the atmosphere. Just one problem: we then deplete the nitrogen and a massive conflagration kills all but sixteen humans (eight British scientists and eight Vassar students – ha!). Interesting because it posits some of the same concerns we have today about genetically-modified foodstuffs. Also provides a shot aside on how the rest of the world didn’t respect the patents on this technology, which also resonates with concerns about the protection of intellectual property abroad.

An Interplanetary Rupture by Frank L. Packard (1906): A war between the great space fleets of Earth and Mercury (which has been settled by humans). Utterly predictable. I was definitely hoping for more with this one.

The Last Days of Earth by George C. Wallis (1901): The final hours of the last two humans on Earth in the far, far future. This turned out to be a far more poignant tale than I had expected.

The Plunge by George Allan England (1916): The year is 1940 AD or so, and life has become peaceful and boring. The protagonists are lamenting his drearily placid state of existence when their airship has a freak accident and they are thrust into a fight for survival. The purest action/adventure story in the collection.

I always find anthologies to be very hit-or-miss propositions, but this one was more “hit” than “miss.” I was exposed to a lot of fascinating stories I otherwise never would have come across and the editor’s introductory essays for each story were excellent. I liked almost every one of the stories in this collection, and found some of them to be excellent. Keep in mind that these are period pieces, and not generally as “action-packed” as we have come to expect of our science fiction. If you require complete character studies or psychological nuance, you will also likely be disappointed – these tales are very much products of the era in which they were created. Highly recommended if you enjoy the work of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, however. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers