The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton is a fresh new take on Victorian era mystery adventures. The characters seem familiar on the surface, but the unique plot and edgy twist on the classic plague makes for a memorable Steampunk story. It is an emotional rollercoaster of character uncertainty mixed in with a good old fashioned murder mystery.
The dreaded plague so often found in Steampunk has nothing to do with zombies or undead this time around. No, here the plague has a bit more of a twist, literally. For those who live through the Constantine Affliction transformation, the shocking result is various stages of gender reversal. Male become female, female become male, and some only change half way. This bizarre exchange magnifies the differences between the sexes in Victorian London. Some victims of the plague run away or go into seclusion while others try to adjust and live in the shoes of their counterparts. A number of female victims welcome the transformation as a means to escape the suffrage and embrace new opportunities made available as a man. Many men on the other hand, see this as humiliating after their rights are suddenly stripped away.
The characters may sound familiar at first, but it doesn’t take long for the reader to question who each person truly is. This allusion to the unknown helps set the tone of the book, allowing the reader to experience the same uncertainty that goes along with living in a society suffering from the Constantine Affliction. Certainty takes a back seat in this twisting mystery as identities are continually questioned.
The hero Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday calls himself a “consulting detective” to Scotland Yard, but the private investigator is of noble lineage and an embarrassment to his family. His weakness for alcohol seems to be a common vise for gumshoes in many genre, but Pimm’s wealth and lack of denial is a refreshing change if not humorous at times. His marriage to Freddy is just as entertaining. The odd relationship is one of loyalty to his best friend, who also goes by the name of Lady Pembroke or Winifred Halliday née Sandoval after contracting the Constantine Affliction. Freddy is more of a sidekick than a wife, but the two longtime friends also act more like a typical married couple at times rather than a pair of platonic chums.
The other hero of the story is Eleanor Irene Skyler. She is a budding reporter for the London Argus. In the male dominant news business, Ellie is forced into the byline of E. Skye just so readers will take her seriously. It is an ironic twist for someone not afflicted by the plague, for she would be one to benefit greatly from the dreaded symptoms. She crosses paths with Pimm while probing the seedy side of Clockwork courtesans. The detective is investigating the mysterious murders of real prostitutes. The two sleuths quickly become friends and allies in their investigations. With the ever agreeable Freddy in the mix, Ellie and Pimm’s relationship becomes a twisted mess.
The plague may not turn the dead into zombies like so many other Steampunk editions, but that does not mean some of the dead are not reanimated. The character Adam, formally referred to as Mr. Adams at times, is sort of a mad doctor who assists Pimm in his investigation. But what makes him stand out is his eerie resemblance to the monster created by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein. He is a hodgepodge of parts collected from the dead, but he is still a brilliant mind with a compassionate heart. And his desire to find love, even if he has to create one himself, is shockingly one of the more heartwarming character developments as the reader is offered peeks into his past.
With a fascinating plotline separating itself from the norm, The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton is still a character driven story. Billed as a “Pimm and Skye Adventure” on the title page, further exploits of the curious duo can be expected. But Payton has a unique opportunity here with other interesting characters as well. The madness that drives Adam is worthy of a separate volume in itself. Whatever the author decides to do, this bizarre plague infesting London is sure to play havoc no matter who the hero may be.