[Book Review] Magic and intrigue in Victorian Londinium.

I have been wanting to read more by Lilith Saintcrow ever since I blazed through her Urban Fantasy series about necromancer Dante Valentine – quick, fun reads full of over-the-top romantic angst and creative world-building of the best sort. So when I saw Saintcrow had a historical fantasy, I was intrigued.

The Red Plague Affair (Bannon & Clare, #2)Sorceress Emma Bannon has a mission to defend Queen and country and to stop an evil doctor with a gaseous weapon of war that has to be contained before it can cause all sorts of deadly mischief. It’s up to Bannon and her friend Archibald Clare to save Londinium before it’s too late.

My first problem with the book is at least 70% my fault – the book I grabbed is second in the Bannon & Clare series. But I’ve started plenty of stories mid-series and loved them, so I decided to march on, power through a crazy action opening and all the names, and then see what happens. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Written as alternative history where magic, Victorian sensibilities, and clockwork-technology exists side by side, it has all the ingredients for success. There are gryphons and clockwork horses, and an exciting system of magic. And then there’s the writing:

“And Clare was congenitally unable to cease pursuing trouble of the most exotic sort. He was not engaged in a life that would permit much rest, and the wear and tear on his physicality was marked.” (page 12)

“A rolling sonorous roil, the entire house suddenly alive with rushing crackles, its population of indentured servants so used to the feel of tremendous sorcery running through its halls they hardly paused in their appointed duties.” Page 13)

“She had the dubious honour of addressing a Spaniard, moustachioed and of small stature to inspire a touch of ridicule of pity, his right arm twisted behind him in an exceedingly brutal fashion by a silent and immaculate Mikal, who twisted his lean face and spat at her.” (page 15)

Even fifty pages in, the writing was still tripping me up, from the style to the made-up words to having to stop time to time and figure out who spat at whom. It didn’t help that the characters blurred together as they made their guest appearances in the story and I couldn’t quite convince myself of the urgency of the danger to Londinium.

Where the quick pacing of Saintcrow’s modern novels makes skimming easy and the stories a quick and enjoyable snack, those same ingredients don’t translate well to the alternative history genre. The flowery language, the frenetic pacing, the flurry of characters whose purpose I couldn’t quite pin down all led to a stumbling experience that hasn’t convinced me to go back and check out the first book in the series.

This looks to be one of those books for the fan, for those of us in love with the Victorian historical fantasy genres, or for the light skim over a long commute.

Review copy courtesy of Netgalley and Orbit books.

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3 thoughts on “[Book Review] Magic and intrigue in Victorian Londinium.

    • I think if you liked the first one, you won’t have a lot of the problems I did (the writing and the who-are-these-characters-what? thing), and will probably have a much better read of it. I’ve checked out the goodreads ratings, and it looks like the people who like the first book are on board with the second.

      You’ll have to tell me what you think of it when you read it!

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