Saturday, May 18, 2013

As the caissons go rolling along....

I'll be the first to admit my picture appears on the Things that are not Steampunk page. I love the visuals in Steampunk art, but the fiction is usually so tech heavy as to be distracting.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes the narrative doesn't get bogged down in fanciful alternate history. Such is the case with Doktor Glass, by Thomas Brennan.

Set in Victorian Liverpool, we meet Inspector Langdon as he finds a faceless body at the base of the soon to be inaugurated Span, a rail and road bridge traversing the Atlantic between Liverpool and New York City.  The faceless body is covered in tattoos of Boer Irregular mercenaries, leading to speculation that the man was part of a South African Dutch plot to destroy the Queen, the Span, or both.

However, the corpse also has two square burn marks on the side of his neck.

What follows is a convoluted story involving the class warfare between upper crust English and lower class twits trapped in what amount to Hoovervilles along the side of the span; widows wanting pensions for husbands killed in the sinking of the caissons of the span, hopeful emigres trying to get steerage trips to America once the rail starts running...

Into this, thanks to a medium trying to help Inspector Langston get past the grief of losing his wife, we find out that the burn marks they keep finding on corpses' necks is due to the Jar Boys, who've created a device that captures a soul as it exits the body of a dying person. These newfangled canopic jars have the added bonus of giving folks who touch the poles on top of the jar a brief glimpse of the soul's life.

And of course, the mysterious Doktor Glass, who seems to be intent on taking out his competitors in the soul trade, who also has Langston's wife's soul in a jar.

The only really issue I had with the narrative was figuring out Doktor Glass's identity well before Langston did, even if the motive remain veiled until near the very end. There are, however, several other mysteries surround supporting characters (most of which revolve around "Who works for whom?") which keep interest high, and of course some exposition on the building of the Span itself, which brought be back to an Art History class that dealt with a lot of Architecture. Because the Span itself is a magnitudes greater version of the famed Brooklyn Bridge, stories of the sinking of the caissons in "the pond" are very similar to the horrors of sinking them in the Hudson so many years ago.