Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: The Red Plague Affair and Giveaway


The Red Plague Affair

By Lilith Saintcrow

Format: eBook, 314 pgs

Genre: Steampunk/alt-history/fantasy

Series: Bannon and Clare #2 (The Iron Wyrm Affair #1, The Damnation Affair #1.5)

Recommendation: It’s Lilith-freakin’-Saintcrow—do you even have to ASK me?

Synopsis: The service of Britannia is not for the faint of heart--or conscience...

Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime in service to Queen Victrix, has a mission: to find the doctor who has created a powerful new weapon. Her friend, the mentath Archibald Clare, is only too happy to help. It will distract him from pursuing his nemesis, and besides, Clare is not as young as he used to be. A spot of Miss Bannon's excellent hospitality and her diverting company may be just what he needs.


Unfortunately, their quarry is a fanatic, and his poisonous discovery is just as dangerous to Britannia as to Her enemies. Now a single man has set Londinium ablaze, and Clare finds himself in the middle of distressing excitement, racing against time and theory to find a cure. Miss Bannon, of course, has troubles of her own, for the Queen's Consort Alberich is ill, and Her Majesty unhappy with Bannon's loyal service. And there is still no reliable way to find a hansom when one needs it most...


The game is afoot. And the Red Plague rises.

First Sentence:  I am too bloody old for this.


My Thoughts and Summary: Melissa previously reviewed The Iron Wrym Affair, and you will find her thoughts here.

What you need to know: this is an alternate Victorian London, now called Londinium, with steampunk and magic, and partly an homage to Sherlock Holmes. Archibald Clare is a mentath: brilliant, logical, and deductive. Emma Bannon is a Sorceress Prime, in service to Queen Victrix and willing to do whatever Her Majesty requests.

The Red Plague Affair picks up a few years after The Iron Wyrm Affair ended. Can you read this one without reading the first? Look, as a writer, I am rather violently anal about reading books in order to begin with; in the case of this book, I’d say hell-to-the-no more than usual. Saintcrow prefers to immerse the reader in the world rather than force-feed details, trusting the reader to fill in the pieces without long bits of exposition. This is my preferred approach when reading (and writing) as well, however it would make it more difficult in my opinion to pick up the second book in the series and become accustomed to not only the new world but suss out past events referenced from the previous installment. In this series you could skip The Damnation Affair—as book #1.5, it takes place in another part of the world with different characters (though don’t, as that book is OMFG wonderful)—but I recommend not jumping into this one without The Iron Wyrm Affair first.

My review will be spoiler-free.

In this adventure, Bannon and Clare find themselves racing to stop a devastating plague from descending on Londinium. Mystery is a fair bit of the plot, and so I’ll avoid giving a summary; the jacket copy above does give enough of a glimpse. But this Bannon and Clare outing changes the dynamic of the series when secrets are uncovered, alliances form (we meet Dr. Vance!), and Bannon’s service comes into question. The Red Plague Affair is thrilling, dark and lush, wickedly smart, and told by two fascinating lead characters.

At first glance, our two leads seem as though they couldn’t be more different.

Reason and emotion. Logic and irrationality. Though a mentath is all logic and magic pure irrationality, part of why Bannon and Clare work so beautifully together is not that they are polar opposites but that they both are a mix of emotion and reason. Clare prides himself on his deductive skills and rational thoughts, though often he seems to be the more emotional of the two (especially with regards to his nemesis, Dr. Vance, eluding him); Bannon is a high level sorceress, commanding magic which is the height of illogic, however she is practical and calm, and even Clare admits she is more reasonable than he’d expect her to be. And this mix of both features is what makes them so compatible and able to complement each other; they have just enough in common to allow them to work in tandem, joining their two opposing abilities into an unstoppable force.

The characters are all three-dimensional and well-drawn, from the leads to the secondary ones that populate this world. I could go on at length about each distinct personality, however I'll restrain myself and focus on Emma, as she is one of my favourite characters to date. What I value most in people—whether fictional or real—is competency more than just about anything, and Emma has that in spades. As a high ranking sorceress with a gift for...magic of a decidedly darker sort, she is practical, powerful, competent, passionate, has a ruthless streak I appreciate, and manages to maintain a certain “ladylike” quality necessary for women of that period while still being someone no sane person would dare to cross. Emma Bannon, in a nutshell, gets shit done, and I love her for it. Her character grows by leaps and bounds in The Red Plague Affair; this book is not easy on Emma Bannon, and makes it clear that as the series progresses, more difficult choices are ahead of her.

The language is lush as in all Saintcrow’s works, but the voice here is crisp and distinctly British; I often pause during the Bannon and Clare books to speak sentences aloud, enjoying the feel  and sound of them (look, I like words). Words like “vexation”. Let’s all say that one: vexation. Isn’t it delicious? Every time I hear it, I spend the rest of the day speaking like I’m in a Regency film.

Saintcrow’s head must be the busiest place in existence (and I say this as someone who’s brain is always doing this), as just with her other many series, Bannon and Clare exist in a fully fleshed out world that at some point in history branched from ours. The world-building is rich and vast, and each book suggests we’ve barely scratched the surface of the history and workings of this alt-London (I, for one, could happily read a series of books on The Care and Feeding of Gryphons; they are fascinating). Though the setting is quite loosely Victorian England with clockwork horses and the like, magic is firmly entrenched in the story, woven believably into the world's history. One of the more interesting details, for me, is how the monarch Alexandrina Victrix is presented: she is Queen, yes, but that is more than a mere title. She’s the chosen vessel for Britannia Herself, literally the spirit of the Empire residing in the young woman’s body.

Let me tell you, it brings a whole new perspective on using the royal “we”.

I cannot go into detail because spoilers, but suffice to say Emma's interactions with Britannia were among my favourite in the book. 

What is perhaps most refreshing with the Bannon and Clare books for me as a reader is the entirely platonic relationship between the two leads. There is no will-they-or-won’t-they or forced romantic tension here: the two are allies, friends, and work as partners; they have an affection and regard for one another, but they aren’t shagging (if that is in the cards, I trust it will integrate smoothly and still not become the focus of the series). Romantic love is all well and good, but sometimes? Sometimes I want a story about male and female leads who are friends. Because friendship is often underrated in fiction in favour of...fetishizing romantic love and holding it above all other kinds. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I like having friends and I like seeing people work together without necessarily getting naked; friends who would die for one another, friends whose love is as strong as any romantic pairing. The non-romance between the leads is a wonderful reversal on reader expectations.

It also bears mentioning that those who prefer no naughty words and no sex scenes will be happy with this book; neither would particularly fit with the story, so their absences are entirely appropriate here. (There is violence, often implied rather than fully on screen.)

Although the main plot wraps up in The Red Plague Affair, there is definitely the sense of more to come (OH IS THERE EVER), and a lead up to the third book, The Ripper Affair (tentative), which I cannot wait for.

Bitchstress Bechdel Bonus: Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Why, yes, yes it does. There are multiple female characters who speak to each other about things other than a man. 

Disclaimer: I purchased and read this book for my own enjoyment. I am also an unabashed Lilith Saintcrow fangirl, as one should be. I tentatively call her a friend, as saying I am a rabid worshipper who sacrifices virgins in her honor makes me sound ever so slightly unhinged, but my opinion of her as a person has no bearing on my enjoyment of her work (I was a fangirl before knowing her).

Giveaway: As it’s my first review, I wanted to do a little giveaway. Winner’s choice of any Lilith Saintcrow (or Lili St. Crow) book via The Book Depository (of which there are many). Open internationally, provided TBD ships to your location. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

45 comments:

  1. Great review... I really like the idea behind Lilith's books, but I keep putting them off for some reason. Although I did give a short read to her first in the Bannon & Clare series. Her language I think is different and takes getting used to. Though this review certainly makes me consider giving it another go. :)

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    1. It does take some getting used to and I find I really have to pay attention to pick up all the details (though that's good for me, to have something that requires my brain's full attention). With the background of Iron Wyrm already, Red Plague was quite easy to follow. The first thirty percent or so gets all the pieces set up and then it barrels forward and break-neck speed for the rest of the book. It's quite an emotional journey as well--absolutely worth the read.

      I do hope you have another opportunity to check it out. You might also consider The Damnation Affair--same world, different characters, and a lot of readers found that one easier to follow. Plus, cowboys and zombies!

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    2. I too hope I'll give another go at some point. :) Thanks!

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  2. Sounds cool :D I do wanna try this series. It hs been some time since I read any steampunk

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    1. It's a wonderful series, I hope you get a chance to check it out!

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  3. Oh Skyla, you are right on with this series! I so need to get to this book. I loved Iron Wyrm Affair. All that Lilith created. Just plain wowing.

    Oh, when I first met Victrix in the first book I was taken with who and WHAT she is. Great blend and idea there. And the Gryphons where a great bonus too! :D

    Well, in truth I don't think I could go wrong with this series as it's everything I love in one place. :) Magic and Steampunk/clockworks as well. Win, win, win for me. :)

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    1. It's fantastic, Mel. And there are more and more little hints given--other countries are similar, with spirits of the empires residing in monarchs as vessels. The history is just so vast, it's astounding. Bannon and Clare here, too, have such a deeper connection and affection--I very much get the sense that neither particularly has a lot of friends (acquaintances and contacts, yes), and their interactions in this book were wonderful to watch. A total must read!

      And gryphons! MORE GRYPHONS!

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  4. Can I say I loved this line: "Emma Bannon, in a nutshell, gets shit done". Oh I love that in a character as well. :D I think the other reason is why I do love steampunk. The women are concerned more about the mystery than the man. In other words, there is more to life and they are living it. :D

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    1. Absolutely, I am all in favour of a good romance subplot now and then but in some books there is such important stuff going on, I keep thinking "YOU DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR SHAGGING". Emma Bannon is such a well-rounded character in that regard--it's not that she's asexual, but the romance aspect of her relationship with her love interest is very much to the side. She has her duty to Britannia (as well as to her friend Archibald Clare) to concern herself with first, and in this book, unraveling the cause and cure of the Red Plague before everyone dies horribly.

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  5. I was lucky enough to read both books thanks to a forward thinking library purchasing agent. Normally this genre would never walk through their doors.

    Your review was spot on and I'd love to be able to win a copy of one of Lil's books for my own library.

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    1. So glad you got to read them! Best of luck with the giveaway, Lili has TONS of fabulous books (she has her own shelf in my large bookcase).

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  6. I really enjoyed your review and I like your comments at the end regarding sex scenes and naughty words, as well as the "Bechdel Test. Good to know. :D

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    1. Thank you! I loves me some naughty words and smexy stuff when appropriate, but it wouldn't've fit in this book, and I run into a lot of reader preferring something a little more PG-13 in that regard.

      I think I'm going to include the Bechdel Test in all my reviews, probably, as paying attention to gender bias is a thing I do anyway LOL.

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  7. I saw this on her Twitter, and had to jump in. I'm reading the Iron Wyrm Affair at the moment and want the other books.

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    1. Hey Dave, I hope you're enjoying Iron Wyrm and best of luck with the giveaway!

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  8. Ooo, I've been a long time fan of Lilith Saintcrow, but have yet to get around to any of her books. I know, terrible, right? I do want to read all of them.

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    1. Absolutely, you must read her work posthaste! And there are many places to start. I think the first thing I read was Working For the Devil and from there I was addicted.

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  9. I very much enjoy Lili's work. Each new series show a growing depth to the characters and the world they live in. Continuing to build on the first volume, The Red Plauge affair is a suspenseful delight to read.

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    1. Hey Robert, absolutely, everything just gets better and better. I really adored The Red Plague Affair, it's everything I could want in a second volume of a series.

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  10. Great review! So I take it this one is pure steampunk urban fantasy with no sex scene? Lol, I can take it. And I agree with you about Bannon and Clare relationship are more like friends than lovers. It's fresh and maybe I'm just tired of friend become lover thing.
    I think I will try The Iron Wyrm Affair after this :)

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    1. Yes, in a genre that's become pretty synonymous with paranormal romance, this was a very fresh take for me--I was delighted while reading Iron Wyrm when it was clear Bannon and Clare weren't getting involved in that way, and quite happy when that was maintained here. They have a wonderful devotion to one another but it's platonic (so far). I hope you get a chance to check the books out!

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  11. I have only read her Watchers series but this one looks interesting too. I will definitely have to look into it. You wrote an awesome review! And thank you for a chance to win one of her books!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by! The Watcher series I *think* is the only one I haven't read yet, I have the entire run sitting here in print on my rather massive TBR. Oh, and Steelflower--I don't have that one yet. One day! Maybe I'll get to them during this writing hiatus and I'll review them for this blog. :-)

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  12. I'm a rabid Lilith Saintcrow fan, and just ordered this book. After reading this review, I'm beyond impatient for my copy to arrive. Hats off to the Bitchstress for a stellar review.

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    1. You'll love it Judy, it's a wonderful book!

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  13. I was surprised by how much I've enjoyed steampunk and combined with Saintcrow sounds awesome! I can't wait to read this series. Thanks for the great review and the offer!

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    1. I haven't read a lot of steampunk yet--I think because I've always been under the impression it's more a subgenre of SF than fantasy, which I'm not a huge fan of--but I have a few on my Kindle, and I'm looking forward to getting to them.

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  14. Reading through the post I kept thinking I really ought to be reading more Steampunk.

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    1. I think I ought to as well! I'm looking forward to exploring the genre more.

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  15. I love Steampunk but for some reason I've not read any for ages. I have the Iron Wyrm Affair on my TBR pile so I really don't have any excuse!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it--thanks for stopping by!

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  16. BEST GIVE AWAY EVER!! I am a massive fan of Lilith Saintcrow as well and am SERIOUSLY crossing my fingers that I get picked :)

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    1. *fangirl high five* Isn't she just the bee's knees?? Best of luck with the giveaway!

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  17. I am a huge St. Crow fangirl! I'm just...GAH! I love this giveaway!

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  18. I like a lot of her work - and dislike some, it's too intense for me. I'm just a little worried about where you say this book is hard on Emma and things will get harder...but only a little. I have The Iron Wyrm Affair - haven't read it yet, but it will work it's way to the top of the TBR pile sometime soon. And I hadn't realized the cowboys and zombies novel was in the same world - even more reason to read!

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    1. It wasn't, say, Dante Valentine hard on Emma. She's not broken, but the axis of the world she's known does tip slightly. So it's not a "I want to curl up in a corner and drink heavily" kind of intense book but it's clearly going to beyond the typical frolicking good time adventure sort, if that makes sense.

      I *think* (don't quote me on this) that Lili has said later down the road in Bannon & Clare that some things from Damnation would be mentioned, though I'm not sure if that's going to be a formal crossover, or that B&C go to America, or what. But yet, all the same world, though very different works. The Damnation Affair is wonderful.

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  19. Oh that sounds so interesting ^^ i'm really curious about this version of London ( the only one i have see in another steampunk was more " normal" in the ministry of pecular occurrences) and i love the duo but since i do prefer reading book in order i would have to get book 1 in this series first

    thank you a lot for this excellent review and great discovery

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    1. It's a very unique portrayal--you can see where it diverges from our world here and then, really fascinating to see. Best of luck with the giveaway!

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  20. Love her books and her blog. :D

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    1. Her blog is fantastic--I particularly love all the adventures involving her animals (those domesticated and those not). Thanks for stopping by!

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  21. I completely agree with you about the series especially about Emma. She is one of my fav book heroines. The series is fantastic with its mix of magic and steampunk but I wouldn't expect anything less from Ms. Saintcrow all of her series have been wonderfully unique stories.

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    1. Absolutely agreed, I know I'll love whatever of hers I'm about to read by virtue of her name being on the cover, and I was really, really pleased with this series.

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  22. I am unashamedly a Lilith Saintcrow fan, since I first read Dante Valentine. Everything she writes dunks me into a new world, where strong women find their own way, sometimes with the help of friends (who are sometimes men) but without requiring a romantic link. As a woman with a lot of male friends, I know there can be an enjoyable platonic relationship if it's allowed to remain that way. I even brought up Ms. Saintcrow at a recent conference panel that was discussing Strong Female Characters, as I felt her writing is a great example of creating strong women on the page! Here's hoping more and more readers find the wonderful worlds created by Dame Lilith!

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    1. YES, all of this! Thanks for visiting!

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