Lady Caroline Lamb famously described Lord Byron as 'mad, bad and dangerous to know.' If Julia Verne St. John has anything to do with it, Lady Caroline Lamb didn't know the half of it.
Byron never appears in 'The Transference Engine' but he's all over it like a miasma, tainting every page with his necromantic presence. You see, this novel starts in 1824, the year of Byron's death, but he seems to have found a way to cheat the grim reaper. Officially dead, with his body buried at Southwell Abbey, he nonetheless keeps on publishing secret books, pseudonymous necromantic texts that are very much in demand from a certain audience, which knows which booksellers to visit. I'll get to the how and why of this later.
Our heroine begins the story as Miss Elise Vollans, persuading Baroness Wentworth, Byron's widow, to appoint her as governess to their daughter, Augusta Ada Byron. She nails the interview, not least by saving the Baroness from physical harm and her daughter from being kidnapped. She's not just a good bodyguard, though; Ada's mother wants her to be schooled strongly in the sciences, not least 'to make sure that she never succumbs to her father's poetic spells or evildoing' and Elise is up to that task too.
Fourteen years on, Ada is the Countess of Lovelace, not merely adept in the sciences but becoming very rich through her work with Charles Babbage, and here is where this fiction really diverges from reality, necromancy aside.
Ada Lovelace was a real person who has been described as the first computer programmer, because she wrote an algorithm to be used on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a device he designed in 1837 but which was never built, partly due to financial constraints and partly because of the state of metalworking at the time. This device is what we would call today Turing-complete, which means that it can be identified as the first programmable digital computer, over a hundred years before such devices were actually built.
In this fiction, only minor diversions were made from reality. Lovelace fixed Babbage's designs for the preceding Difference Engine and 'made it work', then worked with him to create and build the Analytical Engine, an accomplishment which ensured that the pair were 'rapidly becoming extremely wealthy'. It's no stretch and it so makes a solid grounding on which to build this novel, which also goes further to create some other neat and agreeably complex mechanical and/or steam powered gadgets.
For instance, in 1838, Miss Vollans, now that Ada is grown up, has become Madame Magdala, supposedly the 'bastard daughter of a gypsy king', who runs the Bookview Café. This is an intriguing location, which is both a place to eat and drink and the public face of a private library, which hides beneath the café's floor and delivers books through mechanical means, courtesy of one of Babbage's engines and the code which Ada designed it to accept as input. It's a neat steampunk take on Google that delivers physical books rather than websites.
It isn't the Transference Engine of the title, though, which is the McGuffin of the book, while the device in the Bookview is merely useful background detail and a means to progress the story. The Transference Engine is a necromantic tool, a means to transfer the soul of a human being from one body to another. It's how Byron has presumably managed to stay alive and it's how his followers plan to do the same, even though the original was destroyed by Madame Magdala.
Of course, with such a polarising background for this novel to unfold against, we promptly lump various characters into 'good guy' or 'bad guy' buckets, with a few hovering around because we're not quite sure into which bucket they should go. In many ways, the story hinges around them, because there's mystery to be solved and adventure to be had and figuring them out is how we progress through it all. Of course, as bad guys are bad guys, rumours that an attempt will be made to assassinate the new Queen Victoria at her imminent coronation are woven into the intrigue that surrounds Byron and his peers, Percy Shelley and Dr. John Polidori.
I enjoyed this book, but perhaps not for the reasons I was expected to. The gadgetry is glorious but it's a stretch; the viability of the device under the Bookview was often in my mind. I'm all for deploying some of Babbage's engines in fiction but we have to make them cost effective; simply suggesting that it might be a sponsored proof of concept would have been enough, but that isn't brought up and we're expected to believe it can be subsidised by sales of coffee.
The tone shifts too, which is unsettling. Initially, it's very mysterious, as we attempt to figure out what's going on and who's behind it, but it turns into a pulp adventure, a literary chase scene with a neat sideline into the chauvinistic world of the Romany. I'm all for both those approaches but usually either separately or blended more consistently together.
I'm also thoroughly intrigued by the basic concept of soul transference and fascinated by how its reality might shape this alternate Victorian England. Having the heroine suppress technology is a rather weird approach for a steampunk novel, so I can only assume that it's going to get out again and again and thus become something that has to be managed rather than destroyed. Of course, there's only so much that Julia Verne St. John can cram into one mass-market paperback and so much of this remains unexplored after the last page has been turned.
There's no mention that I can find that this is the first volume in a series, but it should be. As a reviewer, series are the bane of my existence because I keep finding or being sent interesting books that aren't the first but the fifth, tenth or twentieth book in a series. Having to go back and begin at the beginning is at once a blessing and a curse: so much discovery, so little time. However, this one needs a sequel because the world it introduces doesn't just have potential for future stories, it has the rest of this story still to tell.
I'm happy to recommend 'The Transference Engine' but I'm not entirely sure who to recommend it to. It will certainly appeal to steampunk fans, but I'm not sure how well it will be received by romance readers, fantasy fans, alternate historians or pulp adventure aficionados, because it has much that all of them would like but not quite in the framework that they might expect. I'm interested in finding out which audience, or indeed audiences, it manages to find. ~~ Hal C F Astell