The Hanged Man, by P N Elrod

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Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

Turning to some choice allies–the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James–Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.

Thoughts: Given that the steampunk craze is still going strong, it’s sometimes surprising to come across a speculative novel set in Victorian England and to not have it be a steampunk novel. Instead, The Hanged Man is a historical urban fantasy with a touch of alternate history thrown in for good measure. There’s mystery afoot, and Alex Pendlebury is right at the centre. Alex is a Reader, someone with a psychic gift who works for a branch of law enforcement to aid in solving murders (0r any crime where death is involved, really). When she’s summoned to investigate the scene of what initially appears to be a suicide but actually turns out to be a murder, she finds herself in the thick of a much larger set of suspicious circumstances. Mysterious assailants attacking Her Majesty’s Psychic Service members with unusual guns, a secret society, and on top of it all, having to deal with her family being at odds with her and her choices in life.

Alex is a pretty interesting character, who is definitely suited to the subtle societal effects of the alternative history that Elrod introduces here. You look at a lot of fiction that takes place in Victorian England, especially with female protagonists, and everyone’s in a gorgeous fancy dress and the women are demure and submissive, except where the plot requires them to be a social aberration and to buck those trends. Which often comes across as social commentary rather than social backdrop. Here, Elrod twisted history just enough that Queen Victoria (who here goes more often by her first name of Alexandrina rather than Victoria) changed laws so that she could marry whomever she chose instead of someone of noble lineage. That changed law led to a bit of a cascade, where women gained voting rights earlier than our history presents, and women wearing trousers as fashion statements or just because they’re comfortable or easier to move in is becoming increasingly common. The Hanged Man takes many of the small hallmarks we associate with gender equality movements and moves them up a notch, so that the book can have a period feel without having as many period constraints.

But that doesn’t mean Alex’s England is a modern bastion of social justice as we know it. There are drops of racism dotted here and there, fitting with an England that still believes itself to be the centre of the world and seat of an empire. Ditto sexism; although women have more rights and freedoms than is typical, it doesn’t stop people from thinking that women are the fairer or weaker sex and that they shouldn’t be part of certain things. As Alex points out in one instance, the fact that women have the right to vote doesn’t make them equal to men in social standing. Readers looking for a presentation of major leaps in equality won’t find it here. What they will find is a well-done compromise and a well-presented society that acts as you’d expect given the timeline. So I have to give great praise to Elrod for being able to walk that fine line, to tweak things here and there to make allowances without going so far overboard that it feels unrealistic. Subtle, and very well done.

The plot has a relentless pace that doesn’t let up for a moment, and normally when I say that I mean it as a positive thing. But here, I just felt worn out by the end. It was relentless, but it wasn’t steady, and I think that was my biggest issue with it. A major event would happen, and then characters wouldn’t even really have time to process what happened before something else jumped out of the shadows at them. And so on, and so on. Oh crap my father’s dead, oh crap someone’s shooting at us, oh crap they’re shooting again, oh crap my boss is giving me incomprehensible orders, oh crap I’m drowning. And through the majority of the book, all you can really tell about the events is that they’re somehow connected to a secret society. Probably. There’s no real indication of how until you’re very far through the book, which means that it’s very hard to play that mental game where you try to take the clues offered and come up with possible explanations of your own. You’re given a lot of events and little context. It left me feeling quite lost through much of the story, like I was witnessing disparate events and only knowing they tie together because the book tells me so. Alex is sure, but she doesn’t give much reason for why she’s sure except for certainty that her family is only involved in small and largely inconsequential ways.

Then you consider that the entire book takes place over about a 48 hour period, and yeah, by the end I felt worn out, and I was missing dropped hints because I’d just become so used to not bothering to put pieces together. I’m told that many mystery novels read like this, however, so if you are a fan of such books, then this may not be a problem for you the way it was for me. If, however, you like to play that game of putting together theories and seeing which one pans out, then you may find yourself struggling to do that with The Hanged Man.

I do want to take a moment to discuss the attempt at romance in here, too. I’m fond of saying that I prefer my romance to be a side dish rather than the main course, and that’s certainly what this novel presents. But that side dish was extraordinarily bland. Admittedly, you really only see the beginnings of it all — more spark than flame, really — and given the book’s short timeframe, I’m glad that Elrod didn’t decide to heavyhand it and try to throw in some instant powerful attraction that results in the characters hooking up almost immediately. It’s more of a crush than love, and that’s definitely fitting for the circumstances. But Alex’s romantic interest, a man we only know by his surname of Brook, is… Well, he is. That’s most of what I can say about him. He gets almost no development as the story goes on, we find out very little about him other than that he used to be in the military and that a solid clonk to the head awakened latent psychic gifts. But that’s about all. He’s present for much of the book, helping Alex with her investigations, but there are characters who show up far less who have more established and unique personalities. It got to the point where I had to remind myself that other people have interacted with Brook and that he’s actually done things, because I was starting to suspect that he was a ghost and was being deliberately vague about everything to do with him in order to hide that fact. (See, I do love playing the theory game!) And because I found the character to be so utterly devoid of personality, I really couldn’t get into any of the romantic aspects, small as they were.

And I found that very odd for a character who’s there almost as often as the protagonist herself.

Despite the problems I had with the book, it still was pretty enjoyable, and I enjoy the way Elrod can manage the fine and subtle aspects of tweaking history. There are definitely some interesting characters in the book that I want to know more about (two of whom don’t really become interesting until near the end of the book, so I won’t leave spoilers here), and I’m hoping more is revealed about them in future installments of the series. It’s a shaky beginning, but not so shaky that I don’t want to find out more, and I can see potential for it to grow into a good “comfort read” series. Worth checking out if you enjoy books set in Victorian times and non-stop mysteries.

(Received for review from the publisher.)