My brother actually bought me this book for my birthday in January. I just finished it yesterday, that’s how long I’ve been distracted by my (ever-growing) pile of books.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear they’re reproducing.
The story is set in London in 1864, a London where strange monsters lurk in the Thames, Whitechapel is a walled off district where eternal alchemical fires burn, and clockwork courtesans service the….ahem….needs….of the male population in London in the wake of the mysterious Constantine Affliction, a disease which kills some and turns others into the opposite sex. The majority of the story is told from the perspective of two characters: Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday, an aristocrat who assists the police in investigations as a sort of hobby (when he’s sober, that is), and Ellie Skyler, an intrepid journalist who has to write under the pen name E. Skye in order to be taken seriously as a writer.
What begins as an investigation into the murders of working girls quickly becomes something with far-reaching consequences for London, the whole of England, and the world, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out already.
From the get go, Pimm reminded me of the Sherlock Holmes from the recent movies. He has a bit of that eccentricity, and while he does have a major vice (beverages of an alcoholic nature) the book doesn’t really dwell on this aspect of his character. Rather, the focus is on how his family is completely disappointed with the way he turned out. I mean, really, a younger son of a Marquess doing gasp! detective work! Scandal!
And then there’s his marriage, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The second half of the Pimm and Skye duo is Eleanor Skyler (A.K.A. E. Skye) a journalist who is forced to write under a male pen name in order to garner any sort of cred as a “serious” journalist (because, you know, sexism). To sum up her character in brief, Ellie is interested in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and she’ll do whatever she has to in order to get the full story–including cross-dressing in order to infiltrate a brothel with mechanical hookers.
There are also some really great secondary characters, we have Freddy (Winifred, who was born Frederick) Pimm’s best friend turned wife who turns out to be quite the tinkerer, Big Ben, who looks like your typical hired muscle until he opens his mouth and thoughtful discussions come tumbling out, Abel Value, the ruthless criminal with connections who blackmails Pimm into helping him, and Adam, a strange man who seems obsessed with finding love (where “finding love” means “trying to bring dead women back to life using the power of science) among others. I never felt like any of these characters “stole the show” from the mains, but that they were definitely interesting and compelling in their own right.
The one thing that makes this book something a bit more than your typical “they fight crime!” story is the Constantine Affliction itself, the disease which turns men into women and vice versa. One of the victims of the affliction is Freddy, Pimm’s best friend (now wife) who he married both to mollify his family and protect Freddy from scandal. The Affliction, predictably, has caused quite a bit of scandal, with some of the afflicted going into hiding or trying to “pass” as their true gender and others (women, mostly) embracing the change and creating new lives for themselves as men.
Unfortunately, while the book does a good job of dismantling sexism and trying to answer the question “Are men and women so different?” I agree with Fangs for the Fantasy’s review when they point out that there’s no in-depth discussion of dysphoria and other gender identity issues, which seems like an obvious issue with all the gender-swapping going on, but no, other than brief mentions of some trying to “pass”, it isn’t discussed at all (although Freddy does at times express frustration with sexism). This is further complicated by victims of the Affliction being legally seen as the sex they were assigned at birth (which, Pimm remarks, can lead to marriages between two women–one having been born a man pre-Affliction) but again, that’s not the focus of the narrative. It’s a shame, really, because the book had the potential to be very queer while it was dismantling sexism and classism and talking about ethics in science and technology. There are also a few rather glaring spelling and grammatical errors that apparently slipped the copy-editor’s notice (in one case, substituting “Pimm” for the name of the Big Bad, which was pretty confusing).
I could go on about how the book handles ethics and science and the idea of progress, but I don’t want to give you the impression that the book is heavy-handed regarding any of the subjects it brings up. You still have daring escapes from clockwork brothels! Criminal masterminds! Steampunk goodness! Chickens! (Actually, there are no chickens, sorry, I just wanted to end with something more mundane.)
The Constantine Affliction is a fun romp through a warped Victorian London, and despite its flaws, I enjoyed my time with it and would like a sequel, right now. Check it out if you think Sherlock Holmes x Frankenstein x H.P. Lovecraft with a whole lot of gender-swapping sounds like an intriguing mashup, especially if social commentary is something you like in your novels without the novel beating you over the head about it.