Title: The Executioner's Heart
Author: George Mann
Publisher: Titan Books
What can I say about this book? It's the fourth in a series the Newbury and Hobbes Investigations, based in a turn of the century Britain in a steampunk past where zombies are commonplace and mad science is very much in vogue. Queen Victoria is a monster, magic is real and there are worrying portents about the future. Our protagonists, Sir Maurice Newbury, and Veronica Hobbes are secret agents, reporting directly to the Queen, and working closely with the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Charles Bainbridge. The world building is sound enough, if rather predictable, in the manner that Steampunk has become a paint by numbers exercise across much of the genre. In that respect, I confess I found the novel rather tired, and Mann's writing in need of a shot in the arm.
In this fourth volume, someone is killing the Queen's agents, while a new set of spies, the Secret Service, forms to battle the threats to the Empire. There are hijinks, a battle with gigantic carnivorous birds, and an assassin who's more metal than flesh. These, unfortunately, rather serve to ram home how little life the rest of the novel has in it, and how telegraphed the twists are. In some respects it feels like something that was meant to be a novella and got padded out to novel length.
It should be compelling reading, but I didn't find it to be so. Instead, it felt like Mann was going through the paces, but wasn't really in love with this world anymore. There felt like the characters were really only running on the spot, waiting for something to happen. They teeter on the brink but never actually plunge over it, unless the plot pushes them. In that respect I found it a frustrating read, as I kept hoping something would happen and that the characters would show some sort of agency, or be affected by something that happened (it probably doesn't help that I immediately started reading Paul Cornell's third Shadow Police novel, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes, and found the rawness of the characters a real shock after the cossetted writing in The Executioner's Heart).
I would say that this is a comfortable read, if you want something that will not challenge you, or are seeking familiarity and nostalgia. Perhaps the fifth volume will be more compelling but, I do feel that if you're looking for something gripping, the best advice I can give is to look elsewhere.