The Affinity Bridge contains everything you come to expect of a steampunk novel: automatons, airships, steam-driven cars and grisly murders in the smog, all this set, of course, in Victorian London. For good measure, author George Mann also throws in zombies and the purported ghosts of dead policemen. The good news is: the mix works.
The novel follows the investigations of Sir Maurice Newbury, an agent in the service of Queen Victoria, and his assistant Veronica Hobbes, as they look first into a series of murders in, yes, Whitechapel; and then into the crash of an airship and the disappearance of its automaton pilot; only to find out that both events are related. Along the way, the investigators come face-to-face with would-be-assassins of various ilk, and both of them have to face their personal demons - an addiction to laudanum for Newbury, a sister in a mental institution for Hobbes.
The characters are engaging, the plot moves along at a fast pace and is highly entertaining. The setting and the time period are well depicted without resorting to gross imitations of pseudo-period talk.
While the story does not really touch on some of the social issues inherent to the steampunk setting (or for that matter, found in the stories of the novelist who inspired the movement, H.G. Wells), i.e. the huge class discrepancies of the Victorian age, Mann does reflect on the not always positive intrusion of scientific progress into the everyday life by playing off Newbury's fondness for new inventions against Hobbe's dislike of the noisy, steamy and awkward new machines.
There are a few negative points to the book: the writing is at times stilted and awkward, resorting too often to stating the obvious; not least in the action scenes in which the narrative is too long-winded to be effective. Some of the dialogues are marred by overly long passages of exposition. My other, minor, point of criticism is that none of the steampunk ingredients are terribly original, all has been done before. The automatons, for example, are highly reminiscent of certain Doctor Who villains, which may not be a coincidence seeing that Mann has written Doctor Who stories in the past. But, as said above, Mann makes the stew of ideas work, which is what matters.
Overall, I give this book a 3.5 out of 5 rating.
Note: George Mann continues the adventures of Newbury and Hobbes in the recently published The Osiris Ritual.