I’ve long enjoyed George Mann’s ongoing Newbury & Hobbes series, but I don’t know what the heck happened here. With a six-year gap between the previous title (THE EXECUTIONER’S HEART) and this book being ridiculously priced when it finally did come out ($35CDN for a slim 220-page hardcover) I ended up sleeping on THE REVENANT EXPRESS until now. I probably could’ve done with hitting the snooze button another time or three before cracking into it.
What we have here is two stories twined together. It’s a formula that has worked well in the previous books, and is used to some success here. Newbury and Amelia Hobbes are on a quest to Russia aboard the titular train, while Bainbridge and Veronica Hobbes investigate a series of strange deaths in London. As is to be expected in these books, we follow alternating POV characters between chapters, but it turns out one of these plots is technically backstory to the other and it’s not really made clear until late in the book that the two stories being told are not taking place concurrently. It doesn’t help that the mystery plot Bainbridge and Veronica are chasing feels rather half-baked, either. One wonders if the twined plots might’ve been better served by splitting them off into separate novellas.
In the Newbury chapters, we’re told Veronica is on her deathbed. In the Veronica chapters, we’re told Newbury is pursuing a previous villain across the English countryside. Subterfuge and deception have long been hallmarks of these books, so it’s not a stretch to assume either of these is a lie… but without knowing one of these plots is set months (if not years) before the other, the result is confusion. Most of the Newbury & Hobbes books to date can be picked up with no prior knowledge of the series, but not this one.
All that said, for all that it lacks the novel is well-written with some lovely turns of phrase, the action is tight and exciting, and the characters remain enjoyable. The setting is still a fun steampunk world, and it was good to finally see the revenant plague (which, as I recall, is mentioned on the first page of the first book) as an active plot element, when it has rarely been factor prior to this. One wonders how effective a fuel source revenant corpses would be for a gargantuan passenger steam train, though.
Not the strongest in the series by any measure, THE REVENANT EXPRESS feels like a mid-season filler episode. It’s also the slimmest volume in the series by a wide margin; the other books average 350pgs, so why did this one come in a full third shorter? Even the collection of Newbury & Hobbes short stories outweighs this book by nearly 100pgs. In the end, this one is only really worth your time if you’ve read the rest of the series, and plan to continue on to the next book (due out next year). There’s only to be one more volume of the Newbury & Hobbes series, so I’ll stick it out to the end.
THE REVENANT EXPRESS
George Mann, Tor (2019)
Chris Patrick Carolan is an author, editor, and hovercraft enthusiast, originally from Glasgow but now based in Calgary, Alberta. He writes science fiction, fantasy (urban and epic), and steampunk, though he has also been known to turn to crime to make ends meet. Crime fiction, that is. His first novel, THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL, was published by Parliament House Press in 2020, and was a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence ‘Best First Novel’ award. He can be found on Twitter as @cpcwrites but – consider this fair warning – it’s mostly wisecracks about McNuggets and Simpsons memes.