Review: The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Friday, February 17, 2012
Genre: steampunk, horror, historical fiction
Series: N/A as of yet but possibly in future
Pages: 342 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: August 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Edinburgh: 1828

In the starkly-lit operating theaters of the city, grisly experiments are being carried out on corpses in the name of medical science. But elsewhere, there are those experimenting with more sinister forces.

Amongst the crowded, sprawling tenements of the labyrinthine Old Town, a body is found, its neck torn to pieces. Charged with investigating the murder is Adam Quire, Officer of the newly- formed Edinburgh Police. The trail will lead him into the deepest reaches of the city's criminal underclass, and to the highest echelons of the filthy rich.

Soon Quire will discover that a darkness is crawling through this city of enlightenment - and no one is safe from its corruption.

The Edinburgh Dead is a powerful fusion of gothic horror, history, and the fantastical.

Having read and been none-too-impressed by Ruckley's first series, a high/epic fantasy set called The Godless World, I wasn't sure what I was in for here, with this interesting mix of genres. From horror to historical fiction, The Edinburgh Dead is strange, odd and a hell of a lot more lively than anything the author has produced to date. Though I've tagged this as a steampunk novel, it takes a backseat to the horror elements as well as being more proto-steampunk than actual steampunk. The funky but largely ignored aspect is rarely mentioned and adds little of note overall to the storyline of the novel. Lead man Adam Quire is an irascible, withdrawn and reclusive main character and can come across as more of an antihero than a straight man in this novel, and is at his best when doing so. 

Adam Quire is a decent man living in an indecent time. Though his elevated standards of behavior and attitude may not seem noticeable or noteworthy for nowadays, in Quire's time it was extreme. With problems in his past and ghosts in his closet at age 37, Quire is no boy. This is a man - one that is deliberate, slow to anger but scary and scarily determined when roused to it. Quire is far from perfect - he even calls himself a "functioning" alcoholic - with trust issues and almost friendless; it's quite easy to fall into rooting for Quire to get his man even as he digs himself deeper and deeper into shit. Well interspersed and varied flashbacks occurring throughout the book provide additional background and personal history for the main character - such as he's an old soldier, strong sense of right and wrong - that Quire himself would never elaborate on presently. Quire is above ALL, a man who strives for justice -- even if that justice is whatever he decides.

Quire's antagonist is both cunning and almost comically evil. While I wasn't too impressed by Ruthven, Blegg was another matter. Him I found entirely foreboding and full of unnameable creppiness. Like Frankenstein's monster, Blegg is eventually outside his master's control and that was when I was most interested in the evil side of the tale. There was some nice and unanticipated maneuvering and sleight-of-hand with the cast of the villains of the piece, but I found their development lacking on the whole. Even the 'good' side of the conflict outside of Quire doesn't rate much better; the strength of this novel lies in the plot and atmosphere, not the characters themselves. There's even a bland hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold to add a touch of romance to all the other goings-on; I just wasn't impressed.

A word for Ruckley's writing here - I was very impressed with the creepy, foreboding atmosphere present throughout The Edinburgh Dead. The unruly and unorganized Old Town, especially compared to the strict and boring New Town, had bustle, and the feel of cobblestones and dirt within an old and dangerous city. This alternate Edinburgh filled with 'medical Prometheanism" came alive from page one, chapter one. This Edinburgh may be creative and fascinating to read about, but Ruckley's imagination fashions a desperate and horrific place where a thriving corpse trade (<SPOILER>and zombies!</SPOILER) make murder and grave-robbery a daily occurrence. It's a city where the living prey off the dead. . .  until one fights back. Like many actual cities and the real capital of Scotland itself, there's a clear disparity between the populace of Edinburgh in The Edinburgh Dead. The poor are largely ignored, save when they can be abused for research. Quire's meddling with the uppercrust nobility reveals a much shadier world than the criminals hiding from Scotland Yard - a world where a gentleman's mere word suffices to avoid an investigation. This subplot of social segregation causes further and all too real problems for Quire in his due diligence after 'nobody' murder victims - it becomes a race against another murder as well as  race to finish the case before Quire can be suspended, thrown off the case, or dismissed. It's both interesting and entirely fitting that one character would say that these were "the most enlightened of times" while concurrently, the most unspeakable and horrific acts are being committed throughout the city. 

The third person was well-utilized here by the author - it shows both a lively (and deadly) Edinburgh as well as all sides of the tangled web of murder, kidnapping, deceit and zombies played out among its cobbled streets. I do wish a bit more detail had been provided and attention had be paid toward the process of creating the reanimated. The ending was actually one of my more favorite parts - rare as that is. Quire managed to wrap up his ties without a cliffhanger, all the while leaving a possibility for more in this vein/series later on. I have to admit, my opinion on this author has been changed.

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