Written by George Mann — The Revenant Express returns us to the Victorian steampunk universe found in George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes novels, which the author last visited in 2013 with The Executioner’s Heart.
The year is 1903, and Sir Maurice Newbury, adventurer and occult investigator, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes are agents of the crown. An ageing Queen Victoria – she actually died in 1901 – is being kept alive through weird science, but has become monstrous and paranoid. Her agents command considerable power to do her bidding but are as much at risk from their ruler’s capricious whims as they are from enemies of the state. Maurice and Amelia Hobbes, Veronica’s sister, are on a sleeper train heading across continental Europe. At journey’s end, in frozen St Petersburg, a clockwork heart awaits the duo; one which will save Veronica’s life.
In alternating chapters, we go back to the autumn of 1902. Strange corpses are appearing across London, the bodies distended and corrupted by a highly infectious fungal parasite. Veronica, alongside Sir Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard, has been investigating. Their work leads Veronica into peril, and in a clever piece of plotting, will impact upon the train ride across Europe that Maurice and Amelia subsequently take.
It should be clear from this brief introduction that Mann, an author with a healthy disregard for genre expectations, has moved away from the more straightforward crime fiction of his latest novels, Hallowdene and Wychwood, in favour of a more speculative approach. Crime fiction purists might feel they should avoid this novel of shadowy cults, altered history, the walking dead and pulp adventure, but to do so would be a mistake. Look beyond the science fiction trappings and you’ll discover a subtle romance, an exploration of the cost of duty, a comedy of manners and an inspection of the corrupting nature of power. That these heavy themes don’t sit clumsily in a fast-paced, relatively short novel that feels inspired by old radio adventure serials is a testament to the author’s skill.
En route to St Petersburg, Maurice and Amelia’s progress is threatened by an outbreak of the revenant plague. Ordinary people turn into blood-thirsty zombies and the contagion must be contained if the pair is to succeed in the quest. Viewers of the excellent Korean film Train to Busan will know that a speeding train makes a fantastic setting for the zombie apocalypse, and Mann doesn’t disappoint with the action.
Elsewhere on the train, sinister forces wait in the shadows, each with their own reasons for revenge against the pair. This pulp adventure positively races along, appropriately enough like a runaway train. Mann begins his novel with a corpse, and then never lets up. It’s a thrilling ride that doesn’t give you time to ponder any of the most outré aspects of the story. I would have liked things to go on a little longer, though. The final coda, despite setting up the next chapter of the Newbury and Hobbes story, would have benefitted from a little extra detail. The presence of a short story, The Word of Menamhotep, is an unexpected bonus.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars