It’s normal for Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, to be called to the scene of a crime, but this is the third murder in quick succession where the victim’s chest has been cracked open and their heart torn out. Bainbridge suspects there’s a symbolic reason for the stolen hearts, so he sends for supernatural specialist Sir Maurice Newbury and his determined assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes.
Unfortunately, neither of them are in much shape to take the case. Veronica has been hunting for some way to alleviate the mysterious forces that have been hounding her family of late, and Newbury has been retained by a private client: Edward, Prince of Wales, who's concerned that his mother, the Queen of England, is losing her grip on the nation.
However, the two detectives pull together long enough to determine that the killings may be the work of a mercenary known as the Executioner. French, uncannily beautiful, her flesh covered in tattoos and inlaid with precious metals, the Executioner is famed throughout Europe, with legends going back for hundreds of years. Something is keeping her in a form of living stasis, but her heart is damaged, leaving her an emotionless shell, inexplicably driven to collect her victims’ hearts as trophies.
Who is the Executioner targeting, and who hired her? Why has Veronica stopped trusting Bainbridge? What does the Prince of Wales really want? These are just some of the mysteries that Newbury and Hobbes will confront on the way to unearthing the secret of the Executioner’s Heart.
Though the fourth novel in Mann's Newbury & Hobbes series, a new reader would have no trouble picking up this book and diving in. Being the first I've read of the series, I had little trouble following the story or characters as any references to past events were explained sufficiently.
The only issue I had following the story was the lack of prologue use. It wasn't a huge issue and
really my own fault. I realize some authors dislike the use of prologues, but setting the first chapter at the end of the story and then jumping back in time with the second chapter threw me off a bit considering I didn't take note of the dates. Like I said, my own fault, but it did seem odd to lay the story out as if it had a prologue, but then not call it that. A nitpick I mention more so others don't make the same mistake than because it had any effect on how I felt about the story.
The pacing was a bit modest, but picked up as the story moved on. It could have moved a bit faster, but Mann seemed content to play in the moment as the characters engaged in conversations. As for those characters, they were somewhat interesting, if not overly familiar -- feeling a bit like Mann was writing Robert Downey Jr's, Sherlock Holmes fan fiction at times. Fortunately he took the characters and story to a different level, fleshing out the world around Newbury as the mystery played out.
The mystery wasn't terribly complicated, but character work carried the story more than the plot. The Executioner was a well developed villain, one you even feel a bit sorry for at times. The steampunk element was an integral part of the world, but not overly heavy. A reader new to steampunk should be comfortable trying it out and the elements of black magic that hover in the background will be familiar to fantasy readers.
Though the fan-fic line from the review may have sounded like a negative, fans of the new Sherlock Holmes movies probably would enjoy this series. The setting, the characters, all had the those familiar pieces while still being unique. Plus, I believe Mann's series did begin before the Holmes movie was released. The pacing and story could have been better, but it's still a relatively easy and enjoyable read and I look forward to more.