NECROPOLIS by Christopher Nuttall, Elsewhen Press (2014) www.elsewhen.co.uk digital edition £2.99 paperback £9.99
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith
It’s always interesting to see how different authors carry off the difficult task of having each novel in a series continue the pre-existent story, and also tell a viable one-off tale. Christopher Nuttall is more than competent in this difficult task. His book here (volume 3 in the ‘Royal Sorceress’ series) both stands alone and very effectively continues the story.
Imagine an 1831 Europe of railways and airships, where the British Empire discovered magic some time back and crushed the rebels in the American ‘War of Independence’. Subsequently, necromancers learned how to raise the dead, and the dead (to put it very mildly) dislike the living. In fact, the undead want to consume us, and they do. The undead here are zombie-like creatures and authentically terrifying, if not particularly original.
The story ‘Necropolis’ (city of the dead, if you have no Latin) begins with Olivia, who has been kidnapped, being transported to Tsarist Russia. Olivia is the adopted daughter of ‘Lady Gwen’, the Royal Sorceress. Olivia is a slum girl, brought up by Gwen to be a lady – though she is still tough and streetwise. Olivia is also a necromancer, therefore deadly dangerous, and according to the Demonic Powers Act should have been executed. (In previous volumes the massed undead have assaulted London and other parts of the world.) Now the French, who also have magic, are on the brink of war with Britain. To get Russia as an ally, or at least keep her neutral, both sides send diplomats. Gwen, disguised as a maid, goes with the British delegation – in disguise as a slapped, spanked, horribly overworked maid. (There is a lot of class-consciousness on display here, and sincere debate about it.)
Russia is led by a mad Tsar, who sees enemies everywhere, both within and without. It soon becomes clear why young Olivia has been kidnapped: they know she is a necromancer. ‘Why do you want me to raise the dead?’ she asks the evil mastermind, Gregory. ‘I will give the Father Tsar an unstoppable army,’ he tells her.
Gregory is impressively scary: a self-castrated worshipper of the Tsar, and mad. However, the undead cannot be controlled ‘in detail’, and if enough are raised they will eat up the world. There are effective horror-movie tropes with infected blood being injected into terrified living prisoners, who are thereby turned into the murderous undead. Olivia herself is constantly under threat. Eventually all the main characters end up in Moscow, and Olivia, Gwen and the diplomats are put under siege by the undead army. I will not describe the exciting plot-turns in detail: suffice it to say that the world does not end when the book does, but the ending is bracingly uncheerful. The fight will go in other volumes.
The ideas are good, there is genuine drama, and the writing is smoothly competent, so I was wondering why the writer is not better known. This may be because of slowdowns in the plot: every journey (and there are many) was described in what seemed like unnecessary detail. ‘Get us to the crisis!’ I sometimes thought. But I hope people do go along on this ride, because Christopher Nuttall has produced what is a fine populist entertainment – and something more.