The Red Plague Affair
First, let me tell you that there is no romance in this book. Period. Nothing. However, I’m a fan of sci-fi/fantasy etc. as well, so I can tell you with reasonable expertise that within its intended steampunk genre, The Red Plague Affair just doesn’t work.
This novel is the second in a series featuring Emma Bannon, a sorceress in service to Queen Victrix of Britannia, and Archibald Clare, a “mentath” logician who seems to be occasionally in service to the Queen, but more often off on his own detective pursuits. I’m sure Clare was intended as a homage to Sherlock Holmes, but he comes down on the wrong side of the line between “homage” and “cheap knockoff.” Emma is more original, a strong female character with significant magical power. Her life is devoted to serving Britannia, a spirit which possesses successive rulers of the British Isles.
In this book, Emma’s tasked with finding a missing biologist who turns out to have created the titular red plague. However, the novel is so tortuously overwritten that it’s incredibly difficult to extricate the story from tangled clauses and warrens of unclear terminology. Consider some sample text:
“Choking, spluttering words more fit for a drover or a struggling hevvymancer than the man of quality Dr. Vance purported to be, Clare’s bespattered opponent hung in his narrow fists like wet washing. Clare’s chest was uncomfortably tight, a rock lodged behind his ribs, and he wheezed most unbecomingly as his trapped opponent tried gamely to sink a knee into the most tender spot of Clare’s anatomy.”
The book’s problem isn’t Red Plague; it’s purple prose. Three metaphors in two sentences is not a ratio endorsed by Strunk & White. And is “hevvymancer” a real word? Because they use both unfamiliar historical terminology and original fantasy words, steampunk authors must be doubly careful to define words or make them clear from context. Saintcrow regularly fails to do this. It was very irritating to look up “hevvymancer” in multiple dictionaries without success and not know if it was because the word was archaic or because it was invented. This problem even goes beyond English – her Italian character constantly drops words like “suocera” and “strega” without enough context to explain what they mean.
Ah, a sighting of that rare and exotic beast, the run-on sentence fragment. Out of forty-five words, not one of them is clearly identifiable as either subject or predicate. Also, why is it considered “extraordinarily thorough” to have an entire set of a new encyclopedia? Do some people just buy the consonants? I guess she means they were thorough to provide one at all, but it’s not clear, and it should have been.
There’s also a bad habit of ending paragraphs with ellipses and picking up with the ellipses in the following paragraph. Multiple chapters end with heavy-handed foreshadowing. Both can be seen here: “Later, he thought he had perhaps done both her and the young Liverpool man a grave disservice… / … but at that moment, all he felt was slight impatience.” You can hum your own ominous “DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNN” music here.
I’ve explained (at perhaps too much length) why the writing doesn’t work for me, but if you’re okay with all of that, what will you make of the story? Well, it’s not great. Clare’s distracted by his search for Moriarty – sorry, I mean Dr. Vance. Someone has sponsored the creation of a plague, which is odd considering that the book explicitly discusses how nobody believes in germ theory. Emma lost all my sympathy when she ordered the torture and murder of a cooperative, truthful witness who seems to have had nothing to do with the crime other than manufacturing some glass containers. A subplot about Emma’s assistant (filled with more imaginary DUN DUN DUNNNNNs) goes nowhere, the plague plot is wrapped up too easily, and a villain makes his escape so he can continue to plague (har!) the protagonists in the next book.
On a couple of occasions, I felt weird anger coming from the book on tangential topics essentially unrelated to the plot. The author, for instance, really seems to hate Prince Albert. More offensively, on two occasions, alternate-universe Catholics are referred to as “filth.” You could argue that the heroine should be allowed to hate Catholics. Well, I prefer my flawed heroines not to have bigotry as their particular flaw, but in any case, it was jarringly gratuitous, occurring in the midst of monologues or historical rumination. Catholicism plays no part in the story at all other than to have twisted the mind of the plague biologist into hating humanity and wanting them all dead (which, last time I checked, is not a position endorsed by the Pope). Why the hate? I couldn’t say.
The clunky writing made the book challenging to decipher and the story, once I uncovered it, was not worth the work. The book avoids an F because I did see something special in the worldbuilding, but there are other works out there with interesting settings which aren’t so painful, uninteresting, and occasionally offensive to read. Look for one of them instead.