I've read P N Elrod before, but only in her more frequent genre of vampire novels. I enjoyed the first half a dozen books in her 'Vampire Files' series in paperback and had no idea that she'd continued to expand it over the years, now realising that it numbers a full dozen, along with one novella and a number of short stories.
Most of her books seem to tie to vampires in some form or other, with her goal apparently being to highlight the versatility of the subgenre by creating very different vampires to occupy very different times in very different ways. This novel is a notable departure from that goal, being a supernatural period mystery that ought to be well received by steampunks. Like most of Elrod's work, it's part of a series, beginning a set of novels about 'Her Majesty's Psychic Service' which already has two forthcoming titles announced by Tor: 'The Chariot' and 'The Empress.'
'The Hanged Man' is an enticing mix of genres, another entry into the growing world of Victorian urban fantasy or pulp gaslamp weirdness, though it never touches on the tarot connection that those titles suggest. It reminds in many ways of Leanna Renee Hieber's 'The Eterna Files,' even if the two authors use completely different styles to tell their stories. Both ground their fantasy material into government departments to set the wild and the mundane at odds. Both set wildly anachronistic leading ladies into Victorian timeframes to do glorious deeds far above their station, a common wish fulfillment reinvention of history in steampunk nowadays. Both also leave us wanting more; though in this, Elrod has the edge because this book wraps up its initial story neatly while Hieber's needs its successors as much as we want them.
In fact, Elrod constructed 'The Hanged Man' so well that it might just turn out to be an archetype for the burgeoning genre. It feels right in every way, from the verbose chapter titles and smattering of obscure vocabulary to the inclusion of period oddities like spiritualism, air-powered guns and secret societies. Of course, it's still very much a retro-Victorian novel because of its various revisionist tendencies and the use of other fantasy devices that only came into favour in recent times. Also, the setting is very clearly an alternate Victorian era because the queen is progressive in her treatment of women, including the Equal Franchise Act of 1859, giving the vote to the fairer sex.
It's also notable that Queen Victoria weds Lord Arthur of Godalming rather than her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which act subtly ties this novel into Elrod's various vampire worlds. Lord Godalming was engaged to Lucy Westenra in Stoker's 'Dracula,' while one of his two friends and rivals for her affection becomes undead himself in the title role of Elrod's direct sequel to that book 'Quincey Morris, Vampire,' which also includes characters from other Elrod vampire series.
The leading lady is Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury, a minor noble with the same name as her godmother, though the Queen goes by Victoria and she goes by Alex. Estranged from her own family, she's focused instead, primarily, on her work as a reader; someone who can extract the residue of emotion from surrounding space and, as such, is frequently brought in, along with a regular detective, as an odd sort of crime scene investigator when bodies show up in mysterious circumstances. The hanged man of the title is an apparent suicide to which she's called; everybody involved, initially including herself, unaware that the man is the father she hasn't seen in over a decade. Of course, he was murdered and he's not the only such victim in the first few chapters, as a grand plot is slowly uncovered.
All the usual elements are here. Pendlebury is a sassy leading lady who's easily strong enough to warrant her own series. Her psychic talents are interesting and her stubbornness leads her into a host of places to use them. She's also, thankfully, not reliant on them alone, as she exhibits observational skills reminiscent of, but not as extreme as, Sherlock Holmes; the fact that she resides in Baker Street is surely no accident.
She doesn't work alone, of course. She's given a mysterious sidekick, Lt Brooks, who, it seems, has a little talent of his own of which he's not fully aware. While there are only hints of romance in this volume between our leading lady and her companion and protector, the romantic tension between the two will, no doubt, grow as the series continues. Brooks is very much drawn from heroic cloth, but more traditionally heroic is Lord Desmond, head of Her Majesty's Psychic Service, who could easily become the lead of his own set of adventures.
Not everyone is so quintessentially English, of course. Others don't have the same go-getting Queen and Country sensibilities, not, at least, the various members of Pendlebury's family and the mysterious folk from the mysterious Ætheric Society who are clearly up to no good throughout. Elrod proves to be more than able to handle both the intrigue necessary for the inclusion of a believable secret society fighting against the crown and the action scenes that literally erupt in the streets of London as battle is joined.
I'd be interested to read up on the influences Elrod tapped into for this novel. Clearly she's a fan of Doyle (who, in addition to creating Sherlock Holmes, believed in spiritualism and had Sebastian Moran fire an air rifle in at least one Holmes story) but Lt Brooks isn't just a Watson and Lord Desmond could have been patterned on a number of fictional heroes. While this book is clearly Victorian in setting and outlook, I found a lot of pulp sensibilities in the adventure angles and wonder if Sax Rohmer might have been an influence. He wasn't just the author of the 'Fu Manchu' books, with their sinister criminal organisation, the Si-Fan; he also wrote 'The Romance of Sorcery' to explore the supernatural, befriended Harry Houdini and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
It seems a little odd to recommend this book wholeheartedly to steampunks, given that there really isn't a steampunk element to be found anywhere in it. However, certainly in my steampunk circles, there's a growing interest in the wider Victorian era and its weird fascinations and, if it can be tied into modern urban fantasy - all the better. This is a fast-paced but carefully written pulp adventure set in an alternate Victorian era full of danger from villains who can be easily understood and those who can't. It delighted me and is likely to do so many times in the future, as I reread before each further novel in the series is released. ~~ Hal C F Astell