The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann
Review by John Berlyne
Snowbooks Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781905005888
Date: 01 September 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Uncorrected Proof Copy : Snowbooks, the small but extremely innovative UK publisher who had a title nominated for this year's Arthur C. Clarke award, extend their SF repertoire further with this release - a steampunk extravaganza penned by British writer and editor George Mann. The Affinity Bridge is - the cover of this proof loudly hails - Snowbook's "biggest title of 2008" and will be published first as a hard cover library edition this month and as a paperback in September. A limited edition run is will also be available.
There is some debate within publishing regarding the commercial viability of steampunk. For fans, this evergreen sub-genre seems endlessly popular, but various publishers with whom I have discussed it seem to doubt its saleability. In spite of this there is something of a resurgence occurring out there in the marketplace. In recent months we've seen the excellent Vandermeer edited anthology of steampunk reprints published by Tachyon and forthcoming is another anthology Extraordinary Engines (edited by Nick Gevers) of all new stories to be published by Solaris in October this year. Slipping in neatly between these two comes a steampunk novel from George Mann, entitled The Affinity Bridge.
Mann is at the forefront of the new generation of UK genre movers and shakers. He's been a bookseller, an editor, an anthologist and an encyclopaedist and he is one of the key personnel behind the growing Black Library imprint, Solaris. He is also an accomplished author in his own right, having – via a number of shorter length works – been steadily building his portfolio over the last few years. The Affinity Bridge marks the arrival of Mann the novelist and UK independent publisher Snow Books are throwing themselves behind it one hundred percent.
Subtitled "A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation" Mann's novel marks the starting point of a new and potentially very fruitful partnership. Sir Maurice Newbury is a charming and dashing academic in the employ of the British Museum – at least he is on the surface. He also happens to be a secret agent directly accountable to Queen Victoria and one specialising in the more "arcane" type of case. His newly acquired assistant is one Miss Hobbes, herself the capable, sexy, level headed type who might well become an "Avenger" some sixty odd years hence. Together this partnership set about unravelling a series of events that begins with some grisly murders in Whitechapel (well, this is steampunk!) closely followed by an airship crash in Finsbury Park.
Mann has tremendous fun throwing in all the paraphernalia one expects to find in a steampunk story – there are automata, all brass gears and subservience, clattering railway carriages, hansom cabs and "pea soupers", gas lit streets and the doffing of caps, gruff policeman, mad scientists, arrogant industrialists, séances, pentagrams, addictions to laudanum and a few ravening zombies just for good measure. That he fits all these elements in to a novel not even three hundred pages long is quite some feat.
However though there are some superb high points throughout the narrative (Mann writes great chase scenes!) there are also some underlying flaws. With so many elements flying around, characterisation suffers – Mann offers us only mere sketches of his major characters, people that the reader can picture only as acquaintances rather than familiar friends. Consequently there is a remoteness to the two protagonists that prevents us from fully committing to them, a lack of the substance one finds in other examples of this kind of work – notable the Diogenes Club stories of Kim Newman, the populace of which is far more clearly rendered. Additionally, with so many events crammed in but never quite given room to bind, the threat at work in the novel takes some time to emerge. It is not at all clear who or what the 'bad' guy is here, and therefore the resolution of the plot is far more satisfying than the set up. There are also some stylistic errors, modern idioms creeping into the Victorian dialogue that just don't sound right – although as I read a proof copy, I'm hoping these anachronisms will be weeded out by the time the book sees publication.
The Affinity Bridge is therefore a competent steampunk tale, but it does not have the makings of a classic. That said, it marks George Mann as a writer of enormous promise, one still very much flexing his muscles and a writer who, as this series progresses (at least one further title is in the pipeline and, one hopes, many more) will doubtless further refine and perfect his art. Newbury and Hobbes and our own selves, have many excellent adventures ahead of us.