The Iron Wyrm Affair, by the improbably named Lilith Saintcrow, is the first in a projected series of novels involving Prime Sorceress Emma Bannon and Mentath Archibald Clare. The setting is a kind of mash-up of steampunk and urban fantasy in an alternative England where Queen Victrix has just married her consort, Prince Alberich, where Clockhorses strain and whinny, and where young toughs have themselves Altered with mechanical limbs.
Bannon is a powerful sorceress in the service of the Queen, and in the service of Britannia, the guiding spirit of the Realm, of whom Victrix is the current vessel. (Note: this is not a metaphor.) She is tough, smart, determined, and because of her unsavory brand of magic, nearly friendless. As the book begins, she is accompanied only by her Shield, Mikal; and not only is it rare for a Prime Sorceress to have but one Shield, Mikal is known to have killed his previous master.
She calls upon Archibald Clare, an Unregistered Mentath; which is to say, a man trained to perform and to desire observation, logic, and deduction to such a degree that boredom can quite literally be a recipe for madness. When we meet him he has been unemployed for some weeks and is clearly paddling in the deep end. (Picture Sherlock Holmes on one of his very bad days.) Their partnership is somewhat unlikely; Mentaths have difficulty with the illogic of sorcery, and Bannon has difficulty with almost everyone.
Together, the two uncover two (or is it three) dastardly and fiendish plots against the realm and the person of Queen Victrix, and (not terribly surprisingly) discover that they make a good team.
I had a lot of fun with this book, and intend to buy the sequel when it’s available on Kindle; however, I was never able to take it completely seriously. It struck me as possibly a little more over the top than the author intended it to be.
And then, the thing that especially struck me is the way that Saintcrow manages to conjure up an air of decadence and sin, especially regarding the relationship between Bannon and her Shield, Mikal—it’s a master/slave relationship, of sorts, and a sexual relationship as well, and I kept expecting the leather and spike heels to come out. But they didn’t. In fact, what little sex there is, is entirely off stage, and (except for the fact that they aren’t married) there’s not actually anything perverse going on. It was really quite odd. I’m used to authors putting forth all manner of sexual goings on as though there was nothing shocking about any of it; and here Saintcrow is creating an atmosphere of great wickedness that completely fails to materialize. Weird. Somewhat refreshing, but weird.