I came across the latest instalment of George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes series, The Revenant Express, while browsing NetGalley for a new book to review. My request for an ARC was swiftly granted and I added it to my ‘to read’ pile. Once I eventually got around to starting it, however, it only took me a few pages to realise that The Revenant Express was clearly part of a series. A quick check of the local second hand book shops inventory showed that the previous books were available so I thought I’d power through those to prepare myself for the latest instalment. Having read all the books back-to-back-to-back-to-back, I thought I would just do a quick review of the series so far (although with ratings for each individual book).
The series takes us to late Victorian-era London, albeit an alternate ‘steampunk’-styled reality, where steam-powered cabs populate the fog-ridden streets and large fleets of airships dominate the skies. As I progressed through the books, I felt as though the city developed into one of the series’ most important characters. Indeed, as each book reveals more about the intriguing city, from the various government institutions to theatres and private clubs, we get to discover many of the bizarre and nefarious secrets that are kept within its walls and under its streets. My opinion of the setting wasn’t always so positive, however. While reading the first book, The Affinity Bridge, there was a strange disconnect between the various locales. It felt as though the characters were simply acting in a theatre, with a variety of props and backdrops being used to indicate different locations. It just didn’t feel real. It was only as the series progressed that the city developed a more holistic feel to it.
“[He] had a knack for turning things on their head, of being able to take any situation and see it in a different light. He offered a perspective that often seemed obvious with hindsight, but represented a logical leap that many people would find unimaginable.”
Mann’s books focus on two protagonists; Sir Maurice Newbury, agent of the Queen and gentleman scholar working at the British museum, and Victoria Hobbes, his assistant. While working at the museum as their day job, they are brought in to help with various mysterious events by the crown and Scotland Yard. I thought both were very well written and the character development of one is deeply entwined with that of the other. To me, Newbury is very reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. He is of great intelligence, is always capable of thinking outside of the box, and has an addictive personality that draws him towards a number of vices. Indeed, I think the quote above could quite easily have been written by Conan Doyle in reference to Holmes. Hobbes, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoyable as Newbury’s assistant. Despite her job title, she is certainly no second fiddle as a character. Strong, bold, and determined, she quickly became the more interesting of the two protagonists to me.
As with any literary partnership, it is the relationship between the two leads that is of the greatest importance. The development of Newbury and Hobbes’ partnership is one of the strongest aspects of this series. Indeed, they come to be essential to one another to such a great extent that Newbury’s relationship with Hobbes is described as “the lifeblood that sustained him.” From the highs of their successful workplace collaborations, to the lows of seeming betrayals of one another, Mann allows us a ‘warts-and-all’ insight into the relationship of the two protagonists. Such a complete presentation of the characters provides us with an opportunity to gain a great understanding of all aspects of the characters, and I found myself heavily invested in their stories as a result.
Beyond being just a method of character development, Mann uses the relationship between his two leads as a means of posing questions to us as the reader. In particular, the dichotomy between Newbury’s fascination and Hobbes’ scepticism of the many technological marvels that the series introduces forces the issue of progress at what cost. While many of the steampunk elements seem to be particularly practical (the hansom cabs and automatons), others (such as the titular Immorality Engine) could be seen as morally ambiguous and downright unethical. Ultimately, how the protagonists view and interact with these elements is of particular interest as it provides us with further insight into their own particular psyches.
Being able to plough through four books (along with everything else that life has to offer) in the space of two weeks is no mean feat for me. Indeed it was only really possible because the plots were particularly interesting. Mann has found an excellent balance between mystery, technology, and character development that keeps you going for just one more page after just one more page. I shan’t delve into the plots in any great detail, suffice to say that they are well imagined and contain multiple narrative strands that are expertly tied together. Not only that, but Mann plants the seeds of intriguing notions at the end of each book that make you clamour for the next one, which is where I find myself now; eagerly awaiting the time when I can begin the latest instalment, The Revenant Express.