“Why privilege the natural? We can do so much better than that.”

It’s 1864 and London is a city of transformation and change, where scientific marvels coexist with disasters and maladies. The Constantine Affliction is one of the latter, a mysterious “disease” that physically transforms its surviving victims into the opposite gender effectively altering the very fabric of society and its gender-related expectations forever.

Nobody knows how it all started but an intrepid duo of protagonists—Pimm, a drunken aristocrat with an interest in criminology and Skyler, a journalist who hides her gender behind a male byline—is about to find out the shocking origins of the disease as they stumble on a dastardly plot that threatens the Kingdom.

I have the slight suspicion that I might be about to damn T. Aaron Payton’s The Constantine Affliction with faint praise. An enjoyable book, The Constantine Affliction is a breezy read that relies heavily on the utterly familiar yet fun trope of the Gentleman Detective and the Intrepid Lady Journalist Who Fall in Love While Saving the DayThere is nothing new in the portrayal of either the Detective or the Lady—in fact, their romantic relationship is underdeveloped and unsurprising—but still, a fun trope is a fun trope is a fun trope.

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This is a very superficial reading of The Constantine Affliction, which does in fact have a lot more to offer than its main investigative storyline and tepid romance and that is largely due to its thought-provoking thematic core stemming from the eponymous disease. The story uses this disease and its consequences to examine gender roles to great effect. For example, men who have been transformed into women realize that—surprise!—their mental faculties have remained intact. And women who have been transformed into men all of a sudden have all sorts of opportunities open to them.

Although the story contemplates and criticizes gender roles very successfully, I think it completely fails to address other sides of the issue especially that of gender identity. What does it mean exactly to be transformed into a person of the opposite gender when you remain the same? Surely gender role is only but one aspect of such transformation. So, although I appreciated the way the book addresses the issue of gender roles and of societal expectations, I also thought that any other equally important aspects of this transformation were left out entirely. I am also rather conflicted about the idea behind the story itself: Does it not say that men can only understand sexism if they experience it?   

Furthermore, despite its strong female lead and the general message of the obvious stupidity of constricting women to certain roles, I do have to question the general depiction of female characters and what such portrayal means within the context of the novel. The murder victims in the story are still all female, the Constantine Affliction is sexually transmitted by prostitutes (because “men are still men,” don’t you know?), and the main male character is plagued by the memory of a Dead Lover.      

Although, admittedly, there is fun to be had with The Constantine Affliction and the basic tenets of the novel are thought-provoking, I can’t help but feel disappointed when I think of all it could have been.  

In Book Smugglerish, an underwhelmed 5 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.