Steampunk by the numbers: George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual
Steampunk is weird.
Admittedly, that’s kind of the point. The gears and goggles aesthetic certainly looks cool, and it presents a different style than the standard ‘elves and dwarves’ style of map-fantasy that’s arisen ever since the first edition of D&D hit the shelves.
But here’s the thing; while it’s certainly a young genre, Steampunk’s been around long enough to develop its own set of tropes and cliches.
The Osiris Ritual hits pretty much all of them.
The Osiris Ritual is actually the second Mann’s Newbury and Hobbes series. I haven’t read the first book, but one of the blurbs on the back said one could just jump right into the series…so that’s wht I did. Whee.
And while I haven’t read the first novel, The Affinity Bridge, I was able to pick up the gist of things pretty easily. The series is about Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, agents of Queen Victoria. It’s basically The Avengers (that is, the 1960’s TV show, not the Marvel Franchise) with more brass on it.
The Osiris Ritual opens with a mummy-unwrapping, which was an actual Victorian pastime (the things you think of when TV isn’t inveted yet). From there, Newbury and Hobbes get caught up in an investigation that involves murder, disappeared women, a nefarious stage magician, a mad scientist, and a steampunk zombie cyborg. When I describe it this way, it actually makes the book sound more interesting than it is.
As, here’s the thing; I’ve seen all these elements before. “Foggy London, just with airships” has been done over and over again- or at least long enough for me to roll my eyes at it. The thing that gets me is how Mann doesn’t really do anything with the Steampunk setting. His London reads pretty much the same as real life London (or at least the BBC costume drama verison of London), only here Queen Victoria is a cyborg, and sometimes there’s a steam-car chase. Really, if you really wanted to, you could probably rewrite The Osiris Ritual, removing all the Steampunky stuff and just pitch it as a Victorian-age spy thriller, and you really wouldn’t lose all that much. This…isn’t a very encouraging sign. Hell, the villain literally says, verbatim, “we’re not so different, you and I.” (Page 235) Mann could be playing around with the cliché, but the tone of the novel doesn’t come off as metatextual enough to pull it off.
It’s possible to make up for a formulaic plot and setting if you’ve got some compelling characters…which, sadly, Mann doesn’t deliver on either. Newbury is your typical square-jawed Proper Gentleman, albeit one with an interest in the occult and an opium addiction to make him a little more interesting. The thing that gets me about the book is that Newbury doesn’t seem particularly clever or competent enough to warrant being an investigator for the crown. For example, even when Newbury knows he might be running into some bad guys (including that steampunk zombie cyborg I mentioned), he remains unarmed. You’d think a proper spy would pack a gun, or at least a heavy stick, but not this guy.
Veronica Hobbes comes off worse. I thought she’d be a fun character…but after she sets out on her own investigation, she’s captured, forgotten for a few chapters, and subsequently rescued. Then, in the big actiony finale (which isn’t that actiony, to tell the truth), she takes a bullet in the shoulder so Newbury can get all concerned and have feelings about her, and…that’s about all her contribution to the plot.
Don’t get me wrong- The Osiris Ritual is a zippy, fun little adventure. I wouldn’t call it a bad novel per se. It’s just that Mann doesn’t do anything new with the Steampunk genre. On top of that, he doesn’t go as crazy nuts as he could have. I would’ve liked to see a far weirder London, with even bigger action setpieces. As is, The Osiris Ritual just comes off as unimaginative and ultimately derivative. It might be worth a read if you’re in the mood for a bit of light adventure, but I’m not really inspired to seek out the other books in the series, either.