The series has been working its way home with each publication, beginning in the far reaches of space (Angels of the Abyss), visiting Mars (The Pearl of Tharsis), hiking through Tibet (The Well of Shambala) and more recently stopping by Cambridge and the seaside (The Bridge to Lemuria). Now, the series arrives in the heart of the British Empire, Victorian London, for a subterranean adventure.
Inspector Wilmarth, the honest copper from Cambridge who briefly appeared in Lemuria, is on narrative duty on this occasion, bringing some down-to-earth everyman charm to the series.
Wilmarth is commanded by Queen and Country to descend below London where his cousin has supposedly committed a murder at the construction site of a 200-mile tunnel being built between Liverpool and London. As always, things are never that simple. Wilmarth's investigation is soon diverted as he encounters numerous Irish tunnel workers who revel in the darkness, devotees of a sinister cult and its otherworldly ancient gods.
Suffice it to say, Shadow is Grant's darkest chapbook yet, both literally, as a result of its underground setting, but also in terms of its tone. Wilmarth's retrospective narration feels tainted with doom, underpinning a sense of dread from its opening which promises to explain the reason behind an explosion that claimed the lives of hundreds. Grant further builds unease by placing Wilmarth away from help and sunlight amidst a fanatic cult. I was reminded of films The Wicker Man and The Descent on several occasions.
There are monsters too. The subterranean terrors are gruesome and vividly described, making good use of Grant's grasp of language: "They were translucently rubbery sacks of butcher's offal. Their skin was coarse and thick and seemed to be arranged around their heads and bodies in bands that, as they approached me, shifted and rolled over one another, profoundly varying their height in the manner of a concertina." Grant's creations are a Doctor Who monster waiting to happen.
Fans of the franchise will be rewarded with references to previous chapbooks and characters. Herbert Walton from Shambala and Chiox Khan from Pearl both appear, as well as passing references to the destructive climax of Lemuria. Professor Sedgewick himself does not appear in this edition of The Sedgewick Papers (nor does his sometimes-ally-sometimes-adversary Mina Saxena) but Wilmarth does meet his niece, Rose Sedgewick, an aspiring physician who shares her uncle's brains and Saxena's beauty.
As is customary in a steampunk story, we expect an element of historical fiction and Grant continues to pepper his stories with cameos from real-life Victorian figures. There is a nice reference to John Haldone, the 19th century expert in natural gas, and Lady Paget, an early pioneer in the hollow earth theory. Yet, the highlight is an appearance from Queen Victoria herself, who speaks with "a voice as soft as any mother's and yet underlaid with a core of steel."
Sadly, this is the penultimate instalment of The Sedgwick Papers, with the sixth and final chapbook due out in Spring. The end may be in sight but, based on the quality of this adventure, the series looks set to finish on a high.