The Affinity Bridge has been on my wish list ever since I fell in love with all things steampunkish. The first tome in the Newbury-Hobbes investigations was billed as a Victorian steampunk mystery. What could possibly be more interesting than a sub-genre within a sub-genre? In my quest for steampunk stuff, I found this ring at Lady Ghagra, run by a pair of Ahmedabad based jewellery designers. At first glance, the ring seemed incredibly ingenious and cool. Later, I thought it bulky and bland - sentiments I could echo about The Affinity Bridge.
The plot plays out in a steampunk version of Victorian London. The airship is the principal form of long-distance transportation and cobble stone roads are shared by horse drawn carriages and steam powered automobiles. Queen Victoria continues to reign albeit with her life extended on an eerie gothic-industrial avatar of a life support system. Sir Maurice Newbury, a dashing and worldly Victorian gent, is charged with investigating paranormal cases for the crown. When we are introduced to Newbury, he is preoccupied with a spate of murders in London’s East End attributed to a ghostly policeman who glows blue like a smurf on LSD. London’s also experiencing a plague that (predictably) turns the infected into zombies. However, the crash of an airship under unusual circumstances results in a diktat from Buckingham Palace which compels him to put his glowing policeman investigation on the backburner, although the law of convergence in mysteries dictates (predictably) that the two cases are branches of the same tree. He has help from his newly recruited assistant, Veronica Hobbes. A Victorian lady sidekick? The things people do to achieve PCness! I see nothing wrong with correcting historical under-representation of women and minorities. But, why inject one character with feminist Botox when you deemed it appropriate to leave everyone and everything else in the novel wallowing in oppressive Victorian parochialism.
Where faux-Victorian language worked notably for Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Mann’s attempt comes off as a try-hard Doyle wannabe. I reckon the novel would have read better if Mann had separated the narrator from his characters. It’s one thing to have your protagonist spout sycophantic and cringe-worthy dialogue and it’s quite another to have your narrator proclaim garbage like “Newbury had visited Buckingham Palace on numerous occasions over the last few years, yet the grandeur of the place never failed to take his breath away. He was awed by the spectacle of it; looming out of the grey, fog-shrouded morning, its towering facade was an imposing sight, a symbol of Her Majesty’s might rendered in stone for the entire world to see.” Awed by the spectacle of the ugliest palace in Britain, surely not? Even tiny Holyrood House is more impressive.
The characters themselves are poorly developed, one-dimensional 19th century caricatures (save Ms. Hobbes, a silly attempt at correcting gender imbalance only to have the woman play second fiddle to the inscrutable Sir Maurice). Sir Maurice is grievously injured on multiple occasions but fights on scene after scene like a moustached Tamil matinee idol. And zombies ... you thought you could get away with it by calling them revenants but a zombie by any other name smells just as revolting. And most odiously, the book (not just the characters, mind you) reeks of an anti-science bias, with a wicked scientist as the villain. “And with genius comes a certain amorality that is difficult to judge” we are told. It seems that some prejudices don’t die so easily.
The Affinity Bridge is at best run of the mill although a deeper reading may reveal the extent of its absurdity.