Introducing Steam, Smoke & Mirrors as a steampunk vision of Victorian Britain, Colin Edmonds makes his debut as an author after a career in British TV he began in the Seventies.
His first novel is a mostly fun expedition into alternate history – a mystery with magicians, pseudoscience and steampunk. However, it can also be seen as a product of Edmonds’ era of comedy. This is a shame when some of the antiquated humour and sexist attitudes grate on an otherwise decent detective story.
Stage magician Michael Magister and his assistant Phoebe LeBreton are swept up in the investigation of a series of murders, called in as experts to help catch a hypnotist turned killer who’s escaped from an asylum. It’s William Melville, first spymaster of the British Secret Service Bureau, who enlists their help, and the book is bustling with turn-of-the-century celebrities, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Victoria.They range from key characters to cameo actors.
Part of the fun is in bringing these historical figures into this world of deception and illusion, balancing the fairly tropey fictional characters. Edmonds’ love for this period is clear in his tendency to liberally sprinkle the plot, dialogue and narrator’s tangents with factual tidbits, the origins of idioms and rare pieces of London’s history. It’s less subtle than it could be, feeling unnecessary at times.
With all the nostalgia for the Empire days, the steampunk element can feel superficial. It’s another prop for the stage, with bright copper pipes, plumes of steam, goggled bowler hats and top hats with half-hunters. The focus is on the gadgets made possible by the technology, while things like the Aethyr, the force powering the Pulsa, remain unexplained.
It’s a tame but mostly enjoyable first outing into steampunk – let down by its continual objectification of women and its meticulous mission to see how every male character reacts to Phoebe’s legs.