Onyx City, the third novel in the Lazarus Longman Chronicles, is different than its predecessors, but just as enjoyable. It is set in Victorian England, two years after the events in Silver Tomb. Lazarus has returned to England, but is not on good terms with his government employers. He had failed in his mission to return French Egyptologist Eleanor Rousseau to her fiancé in England and had also barely managed to avoid damaging British relations with the Confederate States of America. It has also been two years since he has seen Katarina Mikolavna, the Russian agent who had proven time and time again to be a true ally. Unfortunately she had also broken his heart and he has yet to recover.
Lazarus has spent the last two years giving lectures and chasing down obscure books. He is looking for information on his biological father and family when the government calls on him to be a field agent. This time the focus is his home country. Unrest is stirring among the populace due to the upcoming visit by Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian President and the Chancellor of the German Empire. Lazarus is offered a job gathering intelligence on the “hot spots” of the East End. He is loath to take the assignment even though he needs money to help his adopted father overcome multiple health issues, but Morton, his superior, persuades him.
Other issues come to play. “Working girls” in The Whitechapel district are being brutally murdered by a man dubbed in the local press as “Jack the Ripper.” In his undercover work, Lazarus befriends Mary Kelly, a prostitute (the historical Jack the Ripper’s last victim) and also the man who might be committing the murders, but for darker reasons than at first it might seem.
This novel has a darker tone than the first two, which is appropriate given the subject matter. The ugliness of the Victorian age is described in detail. For example, Lazarus listens to a speech by Yoshka Briedis who speaks on the subject of white slavery in London:
He began by outlining the hardships faced by the laboring class, in particular by the immigrant who must flee pogroms and persecutions in his homeland, only to find himself a slave to the ‘thieving class’ here in the wealthiest city in the world. He brought to light the awful reality of the sweatshops where tailors stitched clothing for fourteen hours a day; dulling their eyesight, clogging up their lungs with stuffy air and cloth fibers, denied even the shortest of breaks so that their targets were met. Wives must bring them tea and bread and drop it down their throats while they continued to work. He spoke of the match girl’s strike of July, of their exposure to the terrible white phosphorus that rotted their jaws. The speaker even touched on the poor women who were so desperate that they must sell their bodies on the street and face murder at the hands of the demented individual who stalked Whitechapel by night.
Looming over this already desperate workforce is the idea that mechanicals might be brought into the country and displace the workers from the available jobs. Without any type of job there will be no choice but to starve.
As Lazarus himself admits, “the grey, gloomy drudgery of the industrial age and its modern rationalism” is a terrible drag on his soul. There are few moments of humor in this novel. Yet it is still the wonderful steampunk story world Thorndyke created in the first two novels with airships, mechanicals, and other fantastic devices. I cannot wait for the next chance to explore it.
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