The Executioner's Heart by George Mann

The Executioner's Heart book cover
Rating 7.5/10
A quick, fun read with a good level of gore and intrigue and a background of hissing machinery.

When Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, is called to the scene of the third murder in quick succession where the victim’s chest has been cracked open and their heart torn out, he sends for supernatural specialist Sir Maurice Newbury and his determined assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes. The two detectives discover that the killings may be the work of a mercenary known as The Executioner. French, uncannily beautiful, her flesh covered in tattoos and inlaid with precious metals, the Executioner is famed throughout Europe. But her heart is damaged, leaving her an emotionless shell, inexplicably driven to collect her victim’s hearts as trophies. Newbury and Hobbes confront many strange and pressing mysteries on the way to unearthing the secret of the Executioner’s Heart.

The fourth book in the Newbury and Hobbes series by George Mann, The Executioner’s Heart sees the detective duo of Veronica Hobbes and Maurice Newbury get caught up in a murder hunt for a mysterious and ageless assassin called The Executioner, who removes the hearts from each of her victims. With the killings seemingly occurring at random the half-living, half-dead Queen Victoria – kept alive only through the use of a monstrous piece of machinery which keeps her heart beating – has demanded that Scotland Yard and Newbury find out who is killing these people and why.

Victorian London is given a steampunk gloss as Newbury and Hobbes career through rain-swept streets, examining horribly mutilated bodies and battling strange beasts, foreign agents, and trying to find The Executioner before she finds them. The plot rattles along and a real strength is the horror, with Queen Victoria turned into a grotesque, scheming semi-automaton and The Executioner’s dead shrivelled heart still visible in her chest as clockwork machinery and supernatural forces keep her alive. Typical steampunk themes are brought in – there’s a giant airship hovering over a public exhibition of mechanical wonders at one point and various clockwork contraptions appear throughout, but it’s done with a certain subtlety – no steam-powered crossbows come rocketing out of corsets. This edges Victorian London into a slightly alternate universe, which may not go far enough for some people who really like that sort of thing; focusing more on the murderess and her motivation and the personal and power relationships between characters.

Veronica Hobbes and Sir Maurice Newbury are assisting Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector, Charles Bainbridge, in unearthing the connection between the murderess' victims. Veronica is a strong young woman who knows her own mind and makes an interesting focus as she decides to undertake some exploration of her own, whilst Newbury is a far darker and grittier character who has a strong interest in magic and arcane ritual - employing unorthodox methods such as deliberately cultivating an opium habit in order to do what needs to be done. I personally find the more unusual Newbury a more interesting character than Veronica but they work well both together and separately.

I liked the plot and thought it unfolded at a good pace with some nice action set-pieces, but I personally would have preferred it to be slightly more elaborate to give it more weight – the characters seemed to spend a lot of time visiting one another rather than unearthing clues or questioning people and I didn’t really get a strong impression of the world outside of the various residences the characters frequented. This is also very much one of a series so because I haven’t read any of the previous books, there were quite often mentions of past events and people turned up who the characters knew from previously, but who I as a reader hadn’t met, which meant I was a bit less invested in the characters than I might have been. The ending, for example, leads directly to the next book due out next year, which means that if you read that without reading this one, you’re going to miss out on some of the plot. You can read this by itself and it mostly makes sense, but you would get the most out of it by starting with The Affinity Bridge, the first novel in the series.

Overall this is a quick, fun read with a good level of gore and intrigue and a background of hissing machinery that should appeal to both historical crime and steampunk fantasy fans.


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