Monday, June 27, 2016

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (#SF, #Steampunk, #GenderBending)

Offering up an interesting mix of genres (with an abrupt change of course in the last act), The Constantine Affliction is a fun, engaging, imaginative read that manages to succeed despite the relative blandness of its main character. That's not to say Pimm isn't an interesting character on his own, but he lacks the quirks and personality traits that make the other characters leap off the page.

T. Aaron Payton (better known as T.A. Pratt), has put together a story here that's equal parts thriller, mystery, horror, comedy, and adventure. At the heart of it lies the aforementioned Pimm (an aristocrat who likes to play detective - when not drowning his sorrows), the far more engaging Winifred (his best friend turned spouse - thanks to the gender-changing Constantinopolitan Affliction), and the rather remarkable Syke (investigative reporter and feminist heroine - for whom the glass is always half-full). Facing off against the unlikely trio of heroes is an even unlikelier trio of villains in Abel Value (criminal overlord), Sir Bertram Oswald (the Queen's consort), and Mr. Adams (cousin to Frankenstein's monster). Throw in some clockwork courtesans and some extra-dimensional monsters, set against the backdrop of a London under siege from darkness and disease, and you have yourself one heck of a tale.

Before we get to the story, let me take a moment to talk about the Constantine Affliction itself. Here we have a sexually transmitted disease, and one that often results in death. Nothing remarkable about that, especially for the Victorian age. Those who survive it, however, do not do so unchanged - upon being restored to health, they find that their gender has changed. Winifred is the one 'victim' we get to know best in the tale, and she is one of the strongest characters in the novel, especially in the latter stages. Hers is not the only prominent commentary on gender in the novel, however, as Syke's character has a lot to say about gender roles. Smart, independent, and damned good at her job, she is forced to masquerade as a man in print if she's to have her stories taken seriously.

Elsewhere, there is an awful lot going on, but Payton manages to keep it all on track, all the while building towards a pair of key revelations that quite cleverly connect the dots between the mixed genres. At times chilling, amusing, and altogether fascinating, this is the kind of book where you just have to give yourself permission to settle in and enjoy the ride. It's paced exceptionally well, so much so that you never begrudge Payton the opportunity to explore a few bizarre tangents (and of those there are aplenty). Perhaps Skye's intimate investigation of the clockwork courtesans goes into a bit too much detail, but it's fascinating, and it does help to justify some plot elements further on. Similarly, Mr. Adam's researches into life-after-death may be a bit too grotesque for some readers, but you'll come away believing in the possibility for romance with a disembodied brain.

Where the story faltered a bit, for me, was in the Lovecraftian insanity of the final act. It almost seemed as if, having so deftly handled so many genres already, Payton simply couldn't resist the urge to go all the way with the monstrous finale. The strength of the characters keeps it from becoming too fantastic, but it was so far removed from what I was expecting that I struggled a bit to keep my disbelief willingly suspended. It does give Winifred, our gender-bent heroine, a chance to shine, and does allow for a fitting resolution to the character of Mr. Adams, but it also cast Pimm a bit further out of the limelight.

All-in-all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read, with enough plot lines to fill a trilogy of novels. Unfortunately, it seems as if this is to be our one-and-only adventure with Pimm and Skye, but there's always hope for a crowdfunded or self-published follow-up (depending, of course, on what rights the publisher has to the series).

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