One of the things that I love most about sci-fi and fantasy is the permeability of the genres—their ability to constantly absorb and mutate new ideas, continually birthing entirely new sub-genre outgrowths. “Gaslamp fantasy” is a great example. I mean, steampunk was great enough already (just saying “dirigible” is awesome every single time), but “gaslamp”? I hear the word—its undertones of gothic intrigue and seduction; its suggestion of a shadowy cloak-and-dagger world beneath a sheen of Victorian propriety—and I want to go to there. What great, evocative branding. No need for more explanation.
P.N. Elrod’s The Hanged Man was my first formal “gaslamp” read, and it is as wonderful as I could have hoped. The year is 1879, but not the 1879 we know. Oh, Victoria still sits on the British throne, and the sun hasn’t set on the Empire, but it is a rather more feminist, less mournful one than Her Majesty the Unamused created in our timeline. As a young girl, Victoria spent some time with the commoners incognito, and picked up a few populist notions, even marrying (gasp!) a minor English lord rather than the serious (and prematurely doomed) Prince Albert. She also developed a few feminist notions: equal gender rights laws are on the books, and men have marshaled their smelling salts, and, for the most part (gasp again!) gotten over it.
Oh, and did I mention that this rather-more-accepting Victoria also found the time to establish a Royal Secret Service of Psychics? These skilled investigators, who can read the emotions left behind at the scene of a crime, are tasked with helping more traditional Sherlock Holmes-types tell the difference between a murder and a suicide, or an angry kidnapping from a lovers’ elopement.
But there is game afoot! In this magical environment, Her Majesty’s Psychics are not the only game in town, and a pair of suspicious, untraceable murders are the prelude to the revelation of a vast magical conspiracy with roots deep in the heart of the English ruling classes. The capabilities and identities of these enemies of the crown are unknown and, of course, time is running out.
Sounds like tons of fun, right? And it absolutely is. It features a heroine I absolutely adore. Alexandrina “Alex” Victoria Pendlebury is a psychic, trained by the services from childhood. She is marvelously logical, determined, and passionate, without needing to prove a thing to anyone (you may hold the door for her if she finds that her dress makes that helpful—but she’ll carry her own gun, thank you). She is a well-rounded feminist heroine, allowed to retain her flaws, imperfections, and weaknesses, to faint and shoot up the place, to blush over a boy and rescue a friend.
The supporting cast offers up rakish blokes with tilted hats straight out of the best of central casting, ambiguously grey anti-heroes we’re never quite sure of, and hard-bitten veterans who’ve been around the ugliest blocks imaginable. Madness peeks in almost everyone’s door, creeping a little closer with each battle. (There’s a possible “gaslighting” element to this “gaslamp” tale.) Despite the darkness, Elrod never lets her characters lose their sense of humor or adventure (It’s not in every book that one can crack wise during a satanic orgy), but when she indulges in the true gothic-ness of it all, you really feel it. The cold of a foggy London Christmas seeps into your bones, and you can see the mist of your breath rising with the steam from the horses on the carriage waiting outside. Shadows cling to everything, and you’re ready to jump at the slightest movement.
Elrod delights in playing around in her alt-Victorian toy box. We encounter Tories and Liberals, political groups and entrenched aristocrats, and growing technological advances and scientific inquiry, all within the same booming economy and Empire that Victoria controlled. As in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, magic fits into this world as one more piece of the pie, treated with as much skepticism as newfangled contraptions like typewriters and hot air balloons, which feels just right. And there’s more to come! The story wraps up, but leaves many intriguing elements of its magical community unexplored.
Fill up your tea mug, turn on your gaslamp, and get ready for a seriously enjoyable time.