Doktor Glass by Thomas Brennan
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“In an age of Zeppelins and gyroplanes, atomics and horseless carriages, the Transatlantic Span is the industrial marvel of the nineteenth century. A monumental feat of engineering, the steel suspension bridge stretches across the Atlantic from Liverpool to the distant harbor of New York City, supported by no less than seven hundred towers. But in the shadows of its massive struts, on the docks of the River Mersey, lies a faceless corpse…
Inspector Matthew Langton is still seized with grief when he thinks of Sarah, his late wife. Tortured by nightmares and afflicted by breathless attacks of despair and terror, he forces himself to focus on the investigation of the faceless man. The victim wears the uniform of the Transatlantic Span Company but bears the tattoos of the Boers—could there be a Boer conspiracy to assassinate Queen Victoria on the upcoming Inauguration Day of the Span?
But the truth, as it begins to emerge, is far more bizarre than a political coup. As additional victims turn up—each with strange, twin burn marks on their necks—Langton draws a connection between the dead man beneath the bridge and chilling rumors of the Jar Bars, soul snatchers who come under cover of night. Most frightening of all is the mythic and elusive Doktor Glass, who may not only be behind the illicit trade in souls…but who may hold the key to what happened to the inspector’s own beloved wife on her deathbed…”
Doktor Glass is an unusual but very successful foray into Victorian steampunk. I liked that while the steampunk elements are integral to the story, they don’t overwhelm the narrative and turn into the “cool machinery for its own sake” trope. The author uses two major constructions to anchor his tale: the Span, which runs from Liverpool to New York City, and the mysterious contraption used by the Jar Boys to capture and imprison souls as they depart the body. Both are very much the product of the Industrial Revolution as it stood at the end of the nineteenth century, reflecting the grandiose idea that there was nothing Man couldn’t build or conquer.
The hubris that was inherent in this time period factors into the motivations of the enigmatic Doktor Glass. And in the end, readers will have to decide if Glass’s ultimate goal is evil or perhaps indicative of a twisted kind of logic. I even wonder if this alternate England and its Span are standing in for our own historical disaster involving the Titanic, the supposedly “unsinkable” ship. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the ends justify the means, and even if the end is something Man should strive for.
I appreciated the fact that this isn’t a love story—or at least, not in the way that so many novels use nowadays. Langton is a widower, having lost his wife only three months prior to the start of the story. He doesn’t get entangled in any other romances during the tale, merely feeling admiration for a nurse that works in the local hospital. Langton’s love for his deceased wife threads through much of the novel and gives it a bittersweet flavor.
Brennan’s worldbuilding is solid, taking readers from hospitals to government offices, from slums to tunnels to upper class houses. It’s quite a complete portrait of Victorian England, made all the more interesting for the fact that it’s not set in London as so many others have done. It’s also a great look at police procedural work during this time period, painting a realistic portrait of the limitations to solving crimes. Langton is a likeable character, always in the forefront of a chase or mission, and his grief over his wife makes him even more sympathetic. You’re pulling for him to solve the mystery so that he finds some peace regarding her death.
Doktor Glass is an engaging start to what I hope will be a continuing story. Brennan’s writing will transport you to the dirty, crowded streets of Liverpool on an adventure in both this life and the next one. This novel would be a great crossover to get mystery readers into fantasy.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on February 1, 2013.