It's probably fair to say that I've read a few better books recently, but I'm not sure that I've had quite so much fun with any of them or in fact with any other book in as long as I can remember. This is an absolute riot, a mashup of recognisable characters and places told with such exquisite relish that I had to stop more than once to read some of Alexis Hall's prose aloud to myself.
What we have here is a Sherlock Holmes novel, merely one without a Holmes or a Watson or a Victorian London. The Watson character is Capt. John Wyndham, who's new in the wild cities of Khelathra-Ven after years fighting with the Company of Strangers in an unwinnable war in another universe against the existential peril of the Empress of Nothing. He's our narrator, of course, and he writes this bizarre account of his latest adventure from his lodgings at 221B Martyrs Walk, also a home to our Holmes, who's a sorceress of ill repute, Shaharazad Haas.
The adventure ought to be a simple one, as the banal title suggests, because it revolves around mere blackmail. A lady called Eirene Viola plans to marry Cora Beck, but that goal is put into doubt by a mysterious letter that threatens to expose her sordid past. And Miss Viola has quite the sordid past, the telling of which ought to warrant an entire book rather than a mere letter. For a start, she's a former lover of one Shaharazad Haas, whom she promptly accuses of the deed in language reminiscent of a hybrid of Oscar Wilde and H. P. Lovecraft. The heart of that reads:
"What else am I to think? I know of three people you have personally murdered, one you drove to madness for slighting you, six you left to die in the ash wastes of Telash-Ur, and at least four you fed to the Princess of the Mocking Realm."
"Indeed, I have done all of these things, and more. And yet you still believe that I would resort to blackmail in order to prevent you from marrying a fishmonger."
At its simplest, Ms. Haas has Miss Viola write down the five most likely candidates for this blackmail scheme and she and Wyndham investigate them in turn. This, however, proves to be quite the adventure, requiring them to travel through sunken cities, into hidden realities, even through time. They deal with crooks, pirates, vampires, even poets. And to suggest that such journeys are dangerous is an understatement worthy of Capt. Wyndham himself, who writes with the self-effacing politeness of a true British officer.
I have to comment on his writing style, as we're asked to believe that Hall, in time-honoured tradition, is merely bringing Wyndham's text back to the public, having been perhaps forgotten since its original publication in a respectable periodical over a number of months many years ago. Capt. Wyndham even refers to this within his text, as a means of reminding us of previous chapters or explaining why he's not going to do what his editor wants him to do. He also bowdlerises much, including plenty of Ms. Haas's dialogue, for the sake of decorum. Hall nails the balance between telling us everything and refusing to tell us anything and I thoroughly enjoyed reading these sections aloud.
So much of this should be read aloud that the novel ought to do serious business in audiobook form, should the right narrator be located. How can paragraphs like the following two be read without utter relish by a stage-trained British Shakespearean actor?
Ms. Haas cast me an amused look. "Mr. Wyndham, if you are really so keen to be brought to the unholy precipice of ecstatic oblivion by the comely spawn of primal darkness, I can direct you to at least a dozen highly regarded specialists who can arrange it for you in a safe, sane, and consensual manner."
To be reprimanded by one's landlady is never pleasant, but when the censure in question is delivered in an atonal buzzing from within a partially skeletonised cadaver, within which a teeming mass of insects swarms and moves with ungodly purpose, it can be quite disheartening.
The characters are roughly as you might expect, but then ramped up a little further. Shaharazad Haas is Sherlock Holmes squared, spending half her life in the oblivion brought by illicit drugs and the other half cutting an incisive swathe through whatever charade has been set before her using her substantial powers of observation and deduction and sheer force of personality, along with a little sorcery for good measure. Watson is a gloriously naïve soul, always seeing the good in others and ever-trusting in the authorities, even after they've arrested him again. He never loses his faith in humanity even when the latter ought to send him screaming into the night.
The locations are intriguing. Homebase is the trio of cities known as Khelathra-Ven, Khel and Athra being above ground and Ven being sunken below the waves but carrying on regardless. Wyndham comes from the Kingdom of Ey, four and a half centuries into the reign of the Witch King Iustinian and now under religious control. The not-so-lost Lovecraftian city of Carcosa has been turned into a socialist workers' paradise and the Orient Express still runs, even without an Orient; like everything else, it merely receives a new name.
It's the action that's paramount (and the flowery, overblown language through which it's described), even though most of it hardly contributes to the solving of the case at hand. We might be often forgiven for forgetting that there even was a case, caught up as we become into whatever wild shenanigans Ms. Haas drags Capt. Wyndham within this chapter and that. It becomes a case of witches, vampires, assassins, oh my.
So, as I said at the beginning, I've read better books lately, ones in which the adventures add up to something meaningful or in which we can fairly attempt to solve the mystery before the lead characters. Yet none of them are remotely as much fun as this glorious romp through what seems like everything I enjoy the most. It's delightful stuff and I'd be very happy to contribute an audition to create the audiobook. I'm English and overblown. You could do worse. ~~ Hal C F Astell