Imagine a fictional world combining elements of Jane Austen in an alternate history where Queen Victoria gives England female emancipation in the 1850s with a few steampunk tropes, a little Holmesian detective work, a touch of urban fantasy, and over-the-top pulp novel action. Author P.N. Elrod imagined just that in her novel The Hanged Man.
Combining these disparate styles mostly works, though jarring transitions sometimes occur. Rollicking action becomes superseded quickly by Austen-like comedy of manners, so you need to just roll with it.
The alternate history posits a time when Queen Victoria did not, in fact, marry Prince Albert, but instead married an English Peer, an unheard-of breach of royal etiquette. Victoria becomes devoted to improving the lot of her citizen, including calling on Parliament to grant women the vote.
Her Majesty’s Psychic Service adds a fantasy aspect to this fictional England. Our heroine is Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury, goddaughter of the Queen and one of London’s leading forensic psychics. She’s brought to the scene of a hideous crime, only to discover… well, you’ll have to read the novel.
Elrod pushes much of her exposition about the world she built near the front of the novel, so you get a pretty good feel for the nature of this fantastical London. The plot drives on relentlessly, though occasionally sidetracked by the sudden change of tone. The real problem the story is its reliance on too-omniscient enemies. Some of this is handwaved away by some of the fantasy elements. But at its core, the conspiracy relies a little too heavily on the idea that vast numbers of people would never leak the details of the conspiracy — even those participants in said conspiracy who don’t much believe in it.
The other issue I’d take with the story is how quickly the difficulties ramp up. What other writers might have put into a trilogy, Elrod crams into a single novel. At times, the whole affair seems like it will burst apart from its own energy, but the writing somehow keeps it all together, much like Alex manages to hang on despite the odds.
Our Heroine Alex also seems a little too good to be true, but much of her competence lies in her upbringing in strange and distant places. Even in an emancipated England, most Victorian women wouldn’t necessarily be good at fisticuffs, but Alex’s upbringing and training makes her unique, even in Elrod’s London.
In reality, you don’t really notice the seams. The pace of the plot keeps you turning the pages, the action sequences are well-crafted, and the humor seems integrated rather than tacked on. Overall, The Hanged Man gets a definite thumbs up. I’m looking forward to future installments.