Steampunk has often been a difficult genre for me, and only the recent acquaintance with Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series changed my outlook about it, while thanks to P.N. Elrod’s The Hanged Man I have reinforced my conviction that I should explore it more often. Unlike Carriger’s work, this novel adopts a far more serious tone, but it’s just as involving and peppered with fascinating characters and situations: one of the happy instances where I’m glad there will be more books to follow this one, not to mention hopeful that the many tantalizing hints seeded along the way will be developed further.
The action takes place toward the end of the 19th Century, a time period quite different from the one we’re familiar with: Queen Victoria did not marry Prince Albert but an English noble and she has been the promoter of several enlightened laws, including the vote for women and the creation of the Psychic Service, tasked with aiding police work through the use of psychically gifted individuals. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury is one such person, her gift being the ability to sense residual emotions left over in a crime scene: she is called to “read” an apparent suicide that she’s quickly able to rule as murder and a very peculiar one at that, since there are no emotional traces from the killer, as if he were a ghost. This inexplicable detail is compounded by a dramatic finding that affects Alex on a deeply personal level and that launches a dangerous investigation that will touch several layers of London society and pull her and her associates into a labyrinthine path of baffling discoveries and convoluted misdirections, carried out at a breathless, breakneck pace that kept me glued to the book and, at times, reading on until the small hours.
If the story itself is a compelling one, rich with unexpected twists and turns, the characters are just as fascinating: Alex is a complex heroine, a person who found a useful channel for her gift but at the same time is wary about it and highly conscious of the way it keeps her, and everyone else equally gifted, apart from mainstream society. This is indeed one of the best features of the story, showing how such peculiar abilities can be a mixed blessing: on one side, people with psychic talents risk being overwhelmed by them (like Alex’s own mother, who received no training and succumbed to madness) and on the other they are looked at with suspicion and not completely accepted by the general public. In Alex’s case, her perceptions expose her to the best and the worst of the human soul, while the misconception that she can actually read thoughts breeds uneasiness – and sometimes distrust – in those she meets, and the fact she’s a woman holding a job adds to the mix in an unfavorable way: despite social reforms, British society is still very much like Victorian England as we know it, and such activities are frowned upon if not openly ostracized.
There is a definite feeling of loneliness permeating Alex’s psychological makeup, and despite her successful handling and rationalizing of it, despite her pragmatic approach to life, one can perceive how the emotional barriers she built around herself – out of necessity because of her gift, and out of defense against the world’s reactions – are starting to close in on her. There are a few traumas in her past, the biggest being the perceived abandonment by her father (a detail that will turn into a surprisingly unexpected revelation toward the end of the book, one of the very best in the story), and Alex does not even enjoy the support of family, since both branches of it suffer from their own peculiar quirks, yet we are afforded some glimpses into the friendships she’s slowly (and ever so tentatively!) building in the Service.
Lieutenant Brooks – the somewhat reluctant new addition to the ranks – is the most interesting one of course, due to the careful hints at a romantic relationship: I appreciated how such possibilities are being built with careful slowness, and moreover there are some secrets in Brook’s past that might provide fascinating developments in the future. The author’s choice not to transform their meeting into love-at-first-sight is a clever one and I’m certain it will pay handsomely in the near future.
Other remarkable figures are Sir Richard, the Service’s commander, and Colonel Mourne: both possessing a gruff, no-nonsense attitude, they look more unfriendly than they really are, but at the same time they seem like the kind of people that could bring Alex out of her self-imposed exile and help her tap her abilities to the fullest. Inspector Lennon of Scotland Yard falls into this same category: bluntly outspoken and rough-mannered, he’s one of my favorite secondary characters, acting in delightful counterpoint to the more refined ways of the Psychic Service.
Diverse and interesting characterization blends seamlessly with a story focused on mystery, secret societies with murky goals and a fascination for the occult, and a nasty plot involving various strata of London society. Add to that the Seers, able to catch glimpses of the future they cannot precisely convey; men who can turn into tigers; the Victorian equivalent of SWAT teams and bizarre weapons and you will get an absorbing novel that both holds your interest from start to finish and that launches what promises to be a great series. And if sometimes characters indulge a little too much in explanations – as it happens in a few instances – you will be able to overlook this small bother thanks to the relentless narrative flow: when a book can carry you elsewhere with so little effort, and keep you firmly there, such small details can be easily shunted to the sidelines…
I’m eagerly looking forward to the next book in this series, indeed.
My Rating: 8/10