Confession: I picked up this book not realizing it was volume 4 of a series. It still mostly made sense though, and I didn’t figure out it wasn’t book 1 until the end. It’s historical fiction, set in Victorian England, as Richard Francis Burton returns home from discovering the source of the Nile, but then it goes steampunk with time travel, spirits, vampires, etc. There’s a lot of real life historical people in this story, and thankfully there’s an appendix with the specifics at the end as I didn’t recognize a few of them. In this version of history, Queen Victoria’s assassin in 1840 succeeded, but the world remains generally at peace, thanks in no small part to the mysterious Abdu El Yezadi, a mysterious spirit who turns out to be surprisingly familiar to Burton and his friends.
One of the reasons I missed that this was not episode 1 was that the story involves the meeting of the two key figures, Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne. This is where the time travel comes in. The series as a whole has the two investigating various mysterious and threatening phenomenon and people, and here that’s what they do, but it seems like here that’s happening for the first time. Also, this story features Burton getting knighted and commissioned to work as an undercover agent for the king, George V, and his advisors who include Prince Albert, Benjamin Disraeli, etc. Burton’s first assignment is to figure out why the spirit El Yezadi has stopped communicating with his mediums. This spirit has been a main source of advice and information, so the sudden absence is important to figure out. The other problem Burton has to work on is what happened on his voyage home, when one of his men suddenly seems to go crazy, possibly summons something unnatural, and murders a fellow traveler. This is how the story opens, and even at this point Burton has a feeling of unease that something about his life isn’t right. It turns out this is all connected to the time travel and El Yezadi in a way that reminded me of the Pandorica arc in Dr Who.
The story features a range of important historical people, like Darwin, Isabella Beeton, and Florence Nightingale, as side characters. I wish there could have been a little more with them, since some of the episodes and historical what ifs played with here are intriguing. The one side-story that becomes part of the main plot is of Burton’s fiancée Isabel and their engagement party that goes wrong thanks to the vampire element. In reality, they court for 10 years, and get married, until he dies 30 years later.
As much as I like the historical characters, I think my favorite is the fictional (I think) Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra of Sisters of Noble Benevolence. She’s a fellow adventurer and seems to be pretty capable, although the members of her order also seem to have some mysterious abilities. The reliance and trust between her and Burton is probably seriously ahistorical but it works so well in the story.
My only problem is to decide if I want to go back and try to do the rest of the series in order, or the order in which I can get my hands on them.