“Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be prohibited.”
While I am loathe to quote one of modern literature’s most heinous villains, George Mann’s latest instalment of the Newbury and Hobbes saga, The Revenant Express, is close to proving Um****ge correct. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Cause change isn’t always a good thing. Having ploughed through the first four (excellent) instalments of the series in the three weeks preceding my reading of The Revenant Express, I had come to expect certain things from each Newbury and Hobbes book. However, with the cliffhanger that The Executioner’s Heart left us with, it was easy to sense the winds of change blowing towards the series.
The entirety of the series so far has taken place in a steampunk-styled Victorian London, a character in its own right with well realised locales full of mystery. Despite this, I think Mann’s decision to take the series from London to Paris to St. Petersburg via his own warped version of the Orient Express was the right one. Unlike previous instalments, where Newbury and Hobbes bandied around the city at will from location to location with a sense of freedom, the train had a claustrophobic feel that had characters trapped and unable to avoid whatever destiny lay before them. Furthermore, the nature of Newbury’s main problem in this story (clue in the title) only serves to exacerbate the sense of foreboding brought on from being trapped on a high-speed moving train.
The Revenant Express also brings about big changes in character dynamics. While previous cases saw Newbury driven by his curiosity, intrigue, and duty, his motivations here are far more intense and personal, which comes through in how he is written. The cheerful and spirited side of Newbury was largely absent, instead replaced by a more morose intensity and seriousness, which I felt was detrimental to the character. We also have Newbury joined by Veronica Hobbes’ sister Amelia for this continental train journey from hell. A minor character in the series so far, I enjoyed the extra page time given to the more naïve and unsuspecting of the Hobbes sisters. Indeed these character traits juxtaposed the paranoia and jaded Newbury quite well. However, I felt that the relationship between the two was much too similar to that of Newbury and Veronica in the previous books. There were moments during their interactions where I felt that you could substitute Amelia for Veronica and it wouldn’t really change anything…
The other major change between The Revenant Express and its predecessors is with the story itself. The level of mystery and ‘whodunnit’ within the plot felt greatly reduced from the previous instalments, instead replaced by more action scenes, and the ‘surprise’ element was entirely predictable. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the secondary element of the story involving Bainbridge and Veronica back in London. Indeed, this brings me back to my initial point about change not always being for the better. What worked for me with regards to the story were the mystery elements that involved, in this case, Bainbridge and Veronica Hobbes following the trail of the fungal infection around the streets of London. That is, the elements of the story that reminded me of why I enjoyed the Newbury and Hobbes series in the first place.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. It just felt like filler that could have been a short novella between the series’ main instalments. Indeed, it effectively acted as a conclusion to the cliff hanger that we were left with and a bridge to whatever the next instalment may be. I’ve no doubt that a lot of people will love this one as much as those that came before it, but for me the changes just didn’t quite work. Hopefully, with Newbury back in London and Hobbes back on her feet, episode 6 will see the return of the series to previously excellent self.
– The Librarian
Thanks to MacMillan-Tor/Forge for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.