It’s 1903. Queen Victoria is still on the throne, a malevolent, semi-human presence powered by a clockwork heart and obsessed with control and power. But a more immediate danger stalks the streets with murderous intent and no concept of mercy. Sir Maurice Newbury and his companion Veronica Hobbes are drawn into a morass of deadly deceit that will test their loyalties and courage.
The book starts at the end of the story, with Veronica cautiously exploring a musty room full of ticking clocks. It’s a fool’s errand, and Hobbes knows the risk she takes going there alone, but even she’s not prepared for the woman with ‘terrifying black eyes’ that confronts her. In a heartbeat Hobbes is bested, and Newbury arrives just a moment too late to save her from her fate.
From the second chapter the narrative moves back one month, and the story begins again to show how it all led to that moment. Sir Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, is investigating a series of brutal murders. The victims are all seemingly unrelated but all met their end in a violent and bloody way, with their chests ripped open and their hearts removed. Bainbridge calls in his old comrade Newbury to try and find out the who and why of the latest slaughter to hit London. Newbury is not on his best form. In his attempts to help and heal Veronica’s sister Amelia he is hitting the absinthe and opium hard, and delving deep into the black arts. Amelia’s story stems from a previous book, but enough background is given here to understand what is going on. What is abundantly clear is that Newbury would do anything for Hobbes.
As the story moves along suspects emerge, and who to trust becomes a key issue. Prince Albert pays a house call on Newbury to implicate those damnable foreign agents of the Kaiser; the Queen suspects the newly formed Secret Service; Veronica has her doubts about Bainbridge’s friend the Professor Archibald Angelchrist; and the Cabal of the Horned Beast are making a nuisance of themselves too. Visions trouble Newbury, and the name The Executioner strikes fear into the hearts of those that hear it. Treachery swirls around the city like fog. At the same time as the plot is unravelling a second story is being told of a twisted, torturous and tragic history. This is as sad as it is chilling.
I was completely into the story the whole way through. I loved the characters and their interactions, and I was not sure who to trust as they all have their own agendas. I liked the names too, Archibald Angelchrist has a bit of sinister edge to it, despite (or because of) the heavenly overtones. The Cabal of the Horned Beast is great, as is the travelling exhibition – Urquart’s Monstrous Menageries and Mechanical Wonders. On show in the Crystal Palace this is home to some deeply disturbing attractions and a huge confrontation. Hobbes gets to demonstrate what tough stuff she’s made of here. The writing is pacey and really rather good. I thought it flowed well so it was easy to get into and the important bits I needed to know from previous books were handled deftly. The steampunk elements are totally integrated so it is a natural part of the story rather than ever being an add-on. I read it during a couple of slow train journeys and it made the time whizz pass.
Thanks to Titan Books for sending me a copy to review, I'm adding the series to my favourites list! The Executioner's Heart is available now in Paperback.