In theory, this book had all the elements that are right up my alley. There’s speculative fiction/alternative history, there’s steam punk aesthetics, there’s camp! In spite of all of the things it had going for it, it was an uninspired mess. It read more as some weird fan fiction of the Victorian era found in some dark corner of the internet than a book that people were expected to pay money for. (Sadly, I did pay money for this disappointment.)
Sir Richard Francis Burton (of exploration fame) becomes a special agent for King Albert (Victoria ends up being assassinated). He’s tasked with investigating werewolves prowling London and Spring Heeled Jack, a frightening figure who terrorized a small area years ago by molesting young women. There’s been leaps and bounds made in science, leading to genetically altered creatures and steam punk-like inventions.
I had two big issues with the book. The first being the time travel. Time travel is such a mind fuck that I can only stand light, irreverent stories involving the topic, like Back to the Future and Doctor Who. (My husband rues the day he rented Arrival for us to watch.) I made it about a fourth of the way through, figured out that time travel would be the big reveal, and was internally seething for the rest of the book.
The second issue, and, to be fair, the only one that I can solely lay the blame directly on the book and not just my own taste, is how the book treats women. First is Burton’s fiance, who he later breaks up with. He starts off the book getting mad at her because she goes and does what he asks her to do. But, see, she doesn’t do it the way he wanted her to, even though he never specified. (He wants her to go express his condolences to a rival’s family after the death of the rival and then spends a lot of time thinking about how the fiance won’t do it with subtly, which was NOT SOMETHING HE EVEN BOTHERED TO TELL HER SO HOW CAN YOU BE MAD ABOUT IT, BRO?!) Then there is a nurse who’s sole job is to be eye candy for Burton. I get that the author was trying to do a who Bond thing with Burton, so he needed a Bond girl, but since she has absolutely no agency or character development in the book, she’s just a cardboard pin-up.
But the MAJOR problem comes with Spring Heeled Jack and the plot’s need to molest young women. See, Spring Heeled Jack is a time traveler and accidentally killed his own ancestor. So in order for him to be born in the future, he must rape his other ancestor. But before he came rape her, he has to forcible undress several teen aged women to find the one with the birthmark that his ancestor had. There is a small paragraph or two devoted to Jack having mental turmoil about this. But it’s not nearly enough to make up for this gross turn of events. If your plot needs sexual assault of teenage girls maybe your plot just sucks and you should take a new hobby, one that is definitely not writing.