I love it when two great tastes taste great together. I'm not talking about peanut butter cups—I'm talking about the variety of sci-fi mashups you can find permeating bookstore shelves. More specifically, I'm talking about one particular mashup that really stokes my bookish fires. It's a pairing of two particular story flavors I enjoy individually that, when smashed together, make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Those two parts are steampunk stories and Sherlock Holmes stories. A series that embodies that delicious steampunk mystery is George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes series.
What It's About
The Newbury and Hobbes series follows the investigative team of Maurice Newbury and Victoria Hobbes as they solve fantastical crimes set in Victorian England. Newbury, a museum researcher by day, is otherwise employed as an agent to Queen Victoria herself (who has her own issues). At the outset of the series, he hires the capable Victoria Hobbes as his assistant. Together, they solve mysteries of a most extraordinary nature.
The primary ingredients of the Newbury and Hobbes series are steampunk and Sherlock Holmes.
The stories are set in Victorian England, a city on a technological cusp, where outdated technology is slowly giving way to steam technology. This is evidenced by the presence of airships, steam engine carriages and the proliferation of automatons. Steampunk can be said to be a literary aesthetic, and with this series the descriptions of this environment are so clearly described that you can practically smell the machine oil coming off the pages.
If you are at all familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, it will be impossible not notice the parallels in Newbury and Hobbes. George Mann plays no small part in speculative fiction's love affair with Sherlock Holmes, but when all is said and done, it simply feels like you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story. He achieves this with the Victorian setting, the language he uses, in the demeanor of the characters and in the story structure. There are more overt parallels to Holmes, too: Newbury has a fondness for laudanum much like Holmes’ flirtation with cocaine; Newbury’s police contact, Lestrade, is realized through Constable Bainbridge of Scotland Yard; Newbury even has a helpful housekeeper like Holmes did.
To be complete, the series does include other tasty ingredients. The first novel in the series, for example, adds a dash of zombies, although they are not the main focus of the story. There are also the occasional whiffs of supernatural elements drifting about. And, if push came to shove, one could make an argument that there are elements of Doctor Who as well. Think of these other ingredients as spices on an already tasty dish.
Why It's Fun
If the Newbury and Hobbes series mimics steampunk and Sherlock Holmes so well, what does it bring to the table? Well, for one thing, it modernizes the characters. A good example is the portrayal of Victoria Hobbes. She publicly acts as the devoted female companion that Victorian times would dictate. Yet she often demonstrates that she is a tough, independent female. The former trait makes her a native of her surrounding culture; the latter endears her to the reader. Newbury sees Victoria for the strong woman she is, not the submissive female she pretends to be, which is all the more reason to like them both.
Besides presenting compelling mysteries, the series is also excels at being a gripping adventure. Clues ostensibly lead the Newbury and Hobbes—sometime together, sometime following up their leads independently—to exciting, life-and-death situations, or at least great peril.
In addition to being standalone mysteries, the series as a whole depicts some greater story arc elements that keep it from getting stale. For example, there are background plot lines dealing with Queen Victoria herself (a creepy sub-plot involving the Queen's efforts to become immortal), Victoria Hobbes’ sister, and the evolving, realistically grounded portrayal of the relationship between Newbury and Hobbes. Regarding these arcs, each novel tantalizingly hints at good things to come.
There are four novels that make up the Newbury and Hobbes series. Most recent is The Executioner's Heart (just released this month). The books play out as follows:
- The Affinity Bridge (2009)—Newbury and Hobbes investigate an airship disaster while victims of a revenant plague make the streets of Victorian London unsafe.
- The Osiris Ritual (2010)—Newbury and Hobbes take on cases involving bizarre murders, rogue agents and disappearing women.
- The Immorality Engine (2011)—Newbury and Hobbes investigate a string of robberies that bear the signature of a thief who has already been found dead.
- The Executioner's Heart (2013)—Newbury and Hobbes investigate a series of murders committed by a mercenary who calls herself the Executioner and collect her victims’ hearts as trophies.
While you could likely read these books in any order, I recommend starting from the beginning, if only to see how the greater story arcs chronologically evolve.