Final entry in Hodder’s steampunk/time travel series (The Return of the Discontinued Man, 2014, etc.) featuring Victorian explorer/translator Sir Richard Francis Burton and his improbable sidekick, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Series loyalists will recall the assassination of Queen Victoria by Edward Oxford, an insane time traveler from the 23rd century. This time, Burton finds himself, young and healthy, in 1864 but burdened by sharp memories of himself as a dying old man; Swinburne reports similar recollections. Before they have time to dwell on these matters, they climb aboard the rotorship Orpheus and proceed to the 23rd century, where the Beetle, a strange creature who exists simultaneously in multiple realities and, in some unfathomable way, is also Burton, explains that they must be transported into yet another alternate past where the Beetle’s complicated plot will knit up the strands of time broken by the mad Oxford. Pause for breath. Back in 1861, however, things immediately go wrong. Orpheus’ artificial intelligence inexplicably falls silent; following a crucial meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and genius Charles Babbage, Babbage vanishes, but the intelligent robots he invented proliferate. Worse, Disraeli intends to transfer the mentalities of the empire's ruling elite into immortal mechanical bodies and thereby ensure their supremacy forever. Soon, London's parks become concentration camps for dissidents, the state’s political enemies languish in slave labor camps in India, and Burton and Swinburne battle hordes of mechanical police. Though Hodder ties his time-travel rationale in knots, the plot makes no sense anyhow. Yet when, all too often, the occasionally brutal, sadistic action just plods, his dazzling inventiveness keeps things bubbling along.
More of a mixed bag than hitherto, but regulars will find it hard to resist.