Start with a taste of Sherlock Holmes. Add a pinch of Frankenstein, season in steampunk, and leaven with an STD that transforms men into women and women into men (if it doesn’t kill you outright). Congratulations! You have cooked up The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. Frankly, I left out a number of things that Payton manages to include in his world from the above description in the interest of avoiding spoilers. At one point in the novel one of the main characters says that for him to fall in love with a woman, she would have to be capable of surprising him regularly, and honestly it seemed like he wasn’t talking about women so much as this book. Just about when you get a handle on how this world works, Payton tends to throw in a new element or character to keep you guessing.
Judging by the fact that there is a series name attached to the book wherever I find it, I assume that Payton has more on the way, but you could never tell from the ending. The novel wraps itself up very satisfactorily, while still leaving room for the characters to grow and change. Highly recommended.
(The only downside to this novel is that at the time of this writing it’s pretty badly overpriced on Amazon. I got it from the library, and you can find a much more reasonably priced, not to mention DRM-free, version at Baen Ebooks.)
The novel opens with a man named Adams reanimating the corpse of a dead woman in his search for true love. Sadly, the corpse ends up a mindless beast and he is forced to install a device in its brain to enable it to be controlled so that his employers can use the formerly-dead creature as a prostitute.
We then are introduced to Pembroke Hanover, called Pimm by virtually everyone, who is an aristocrat with an interest in criminology and who has a serious drinking problem. He is living with and married to his old friend Freddy who has been transformed by the Constantine Affliction into a woman and now goes by Winifred. They are visited by Abel Value (and his lackey, Big Ben), who is basically a mob boss and wants Pimm to figure out who is killing his whores and leaving them on the doorsteps of his clockwork brothels. Pimm does not wish to work for Value, but is successfully blackmailed because Value knows about Freddy.
Lastly, we are introduced to Ellie Skyler, a female journalist who writes under the pseudonym E. Skye. Ellie is determined to write a piece on the clockwork brothels that have sprung up since the Constantine Affliction started, and with the help of her one-time fiancé’s father disguises herself as a man. However, inside of the brothel she discovers the eminent Sir Bertram Oswald (rumored to be very close to Queen Victoria) who is performing maintenance on one of the automatons, and has to flee (chased by “Crippler” Crippen, a former prize fighter turned criminal).
Pimm meets with Value and discovers a pattern to the prostitute’s deaths, and departs with Ben to try and stop the killer. However, he is accosted outside by Ellie, who has been canvassing Value in hopes of learning how he and Oswald are connected. Pimm promises her an exclusive interview once the killer is found in return for her present silence.
While he waits for nightfall, Pimm visits Mr. Adams on Value’s suggestion. Adams tells him that with a fresh enough corpse he thinks he could reanimate the brain and ask it about who killed it.
Pimm successfully stakes out the area and almost catches the murderer in the act, but fails to apprehend him. Ellie, who has been following Pimm, catches a brief look at the murderer then follows Pimm and Ben to Adams basement laboratory with the body.
Adams is indeed able to reanimate the brain of the prostitute, whose name is Margaret, and learns the identity of the killer. Pimm leaves and discovers Ellie who has just been captured by Crippler. Pimm passes her off as his assistant Mr. Jenkins (since she is crossdressing at the moment), although Crippler recognizes her from the brothel.
The two track down Thaddeus Worth, who is the killer. Worth claims that something far bigger than just the murder of a few prostitutes is going on, and although Pimm convinces him to confess he refuses to tell them anything, even when Ellie drops Oswald’s name. Pimm sends Ellie to his home to rest (since she won’t be able to get into her boarding house at this time of night), and helps the police collect Worth and find the body of the prostitute that Pimm convinced Adams to dump near the Thames to lend credence to the confession.
Ellie meets Winifred (who tells her to call her Winnie), and is put up in their spare bedroom. When Pimm gets home, Winifred tells him she can tell he’s falling for Ellie and that he should go for it, but he is reticent because he does not think he can get out of their marriage without exposing Winifred’s secret.
Ellie wakes up long before Pimm, and Winifred invites her to join them for lunch. She returns to her boarding house and changes back into women’s clothing, only to be subsequently surprised by Crippler, who followed “Jenkins”. Ellie drives him off with the help of her skillet-wielding landlady.
Winifred and Ellie go to Hyde Park for their picnic, with Pimm planning to join them later. Unfortunately, Winifred realizes too late that by joining her, Ellie has tied together “Jenkins” and herself for their opponents, and they are captured by Oswald’s secretary and a small troupe of clockwork prostitutes.
After telling Value what happened, Pimm is shocked to find that Value now fears for his life. Pimm visits the police to find that Worth has died mysteriously in the night.
Pimm comes looking for Winifred and Ellie in the park later, and when he is unable to find them realizes that Oswald must have moved against them. He goes back searching for Value, only to find that Value has run (and destroyed any potentially damning paperwork as he went), but left Big Ben behind. Pimm hires Ben, who leads him to Oswald’s factory where he constructs the clockwork prostitutes.
Meanwhile, Adams is confronted by Oswald, who reveals that he plans to replace the Queen with a clockwork version of her and no longer needs Adams and his failed mind control experiments. He shoots Adams, but fortunately Adams has a backup heart and survives the ordeal.
Pimm discovers the Queen, now transformed into a man by the Constantine Affliction which he realizes was manufactured by Oswald. However, he is surprised by Oswald, and he and Ben are placed in the cage with the others.
Oswald attempts to convert them to his way of thinking with a monologue about how he is creating a perfect society, and then leaves for his exposition where he plans to change the world somehow.
Winnie picks the cage lock, they free the Queen, and capture Oswald’s secretary. The secretary reveals that he is part of a cult that worships horrible monsters from beyond their reality, and that he has shown Oswald how to create a portal for the creatures. Oswald thinks he can control them and use them to frighten the British people into allowing him to create a giant barrier around London, thus allowing him to control all the variables in the city so that he can perform his social experiments. The secretary manages to summon one of the creatures, which promptly kills him.
They are able to destroy the creature using electricity. Winnie heads back to their home to create some devices for fighting monsters, and the rest head to Oswald’s exposition.
There they discover monstrous-sized versions of the machines that Oswald was using in the warehouse, but because they are so large they are unable to destroy them. Oswald successfully opens his portal, and like his secretary before him is promptly killed by one of the monsters. Winnie shows up with electrified fencing foils, and she and Ellie go to work killing the monsters.
Pimm runs into Adams, who has brought a bunch of his ravenous former-prostitutes meaning to set them on Oswald (he reanimated Margaret, but she ran away from him in fear so he feels like wreaking some destruction). Pimm convinces him to set his “honor guard” on the monsters instead because they are threatening the woman he loves (Ellie), and then Adams singlehandedly destroys one of the summoning machines and another monster.
Everyone in the little troupe is knighted for their efforts by the now-male Queen, Adams is reunited with Margaret who has gotten over her fear, and everything looks to have ended happily.