The Constantine Affliction is easy one of the best titles Night Shade Books has published in 2012 and stands as an absolute best practices for the legion of writers currently writing in the urban fantasy and/or steampunk genres. T. Aaron Payton, or Tim Pratt as he’s more widely known, has given readers a reasonably well executed mystery wrapped in a historical and science fictional gauntlet that challenges the too often rose colored portrayal of the Victorian Era. Oh, and it has a few things to say about today too.
Set in 1864, thirteen years after Henry Cole’s Great Exhibition, London is in upheaval. Alchemical lights brighten the night and automated carriages litter the streets. Amid this emerging technology a new affliction strikes the city’s denizens, killing some and leaving others with transformed gender. Evidence suggesting the disease is transmitted sexually, leading promiscuous men to satisfy themselves with clockwork courtesans, a new design in the technological petri dish that London’s become.
The impacts of the Affliction on society are everywhere, but nothing has fundamentally changed. Rather than equalizing the disparity between men and women, the epidemic seems to only deepen it, with changed men carrying on with false mustaches and changed women embracing their new efficacy with gusto. Payton paints into this scene the murders of living breathing prostitutes, which their pimp Mr. Abel Value cannot abide.
Written (mostly) from two points of view, Mr. Value’s amateur investigator Pembroke Halliday, and journalist Ellie Skyler, Constantine Affliction reads like murder mystery meets monster movie. Pembroke, or Pimm, inhabits Sherlock to Skyler’s Watson, the former investigating on Value’s behalf and informed by the latter’s desire for the truth above all. Tied into this straight forward murder mystery with steampunk trappings is an inverted Frankenstein love story, with the monster as the creator:
[He] attached the hand-woven filaments of wire to her brow, and inserted a metal probe into a tiny bloodless incision over her heart. The wires ran back to a tall wooden shelf that held row upon row of earthenware jars, bubbling with cuastic chemicals that combined to produce that modern marvel, captive electricity.
This inversion is a common theme throughout Payton’s novel. Invert, a now out-dated term for a homosexual, shows up from time to time in dialogue as an obvious reference to the idea, but Payton takes it further, turning the preconceptions of gender, romance, and power on their head. The Constantine Affliction,
transforms men into women, and women into men, while retaining their same essential minds and faculties. . .[to] make people realize how ridiculous and arbitrary the division into male and female ‘spheres’ truly is.
Or so goes the dream. Throughout the novel Payton crushes it, demonstrating that putting a man into a woman’s shoes isn’t enough to shift perception of society writ large. London, for all the pressure placed on it, remains focused on many of the same things it was focused on in real history. Men rule the world and to be a man is to be reckoned with.
It’s not all pessimistic. There’s a good amount of humor throughout; mostly from Pimm’s “wife” Winifred (or Winnie/Freddy), whose brand of wit reflects her former life. Although not a point of view character, she’s a vital component to Payton’s central argument, that while gender is a matter of genetics, it does not define character or capability.
[Ellie’d] begun to think of Winnie as a friend, and to find out there the mind and soul of a man in that body was a shock.
Payton uses Winnie, Ellie (or E. Skye), and others who I’ll obscure for the sake of the story, to emphasize that wholesale change is often anything but. He argues that such things first take place among individuals, changing hearts and minds one at a time. By the novel’s conclusion there’s a hope that small victories will eventually move the needle. For those living in today’s world it’s a recognition that the fight for gender equality goes on and should not be presumed accomplished.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I feel Payton occasionally flinches from his intended target, staying well away from polemics. In that regard Constantine Affliction falls rather well short of something more aggressive like Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture), which prefers to punch the reader in the face, stomach, and gender-neutral genitalia all at once. Likewise, the fact that half the female characters exist as prostitutes, including regiments of unthinking sex-bots, seems to impugn some of the ground Payton gains. Even off-set by the incredibly well rounded portrayals of Ellie, Winnie, and Victoria herself, the use of the ‘whore with a heart of gold’® seems like a disappointingly easy choice for an otherwise progressive piece of fiction.
Any lack in its argument, is overcome by how fun it is to read. Written with a great eye for pace and an understanding of where to apply historical details and where to skip over them, The Constantine Affliction strikes a perfect balance between laughing at itself, and taking itself deathly serious. It’s a balance many authors aren’t able to attain, and it speaks to T. Aaron Payton’s years spent honing his craft. I hope this novel gets the attention it deserves. I fear it’ll be swept under the same rug society tends to sweep issues like gender equality.