Mark Latham - The Iscariot Sanction

Review :

Originally published at Risingshadow.

Mark A. Latham's The Iscariot Sanction is the second novel in the Apollonian Casefiles series of steampunkish speculative fiction novels. It's one of the best Victorian speculative fiction novels - and also one of the best sequels - I've ever had the pleasure of reading, because it's first-rate entertainment from start to finish.

The Iscariot Sanction is an intriguing and richly told speculative fiction novel that takes readers on a journey into an alternate Victorian England where wonders and terrors abound. It doesn't disappoint readers, because it's an exceptionally addictive and entertaining novel filled with adventure and mystery elements.

Because I enjoyed reading The Lazarus Gate and found it to be highly entertaining and original, I had high hopes for The Iscariot Sanction. I was positively surprised when I noticed that this novel met all of my expectations and even exceeded them on certain levels. This novel firmly builds upon what was revealed in the first novel and takes things further (it's similar to yet different from The Lazarus Gate, because it has a darker atmosphere and more speculative fiction elements).

The Iscariot Sanction makes for an interesting and intelligent read due to its originality and various speculative fiction elements. It differs from other similar kind of novels by having an intriguingly dark and a bit twisted story that hooks readers immediately. It's a veritable page-turner for those who love Victorian speculative fiction and are thrilled by dark happenings.

I think it's worth mentioning that The Iscariot Sanction can be read as a standalone novel. You don't necessarily have to know anything about the previous novel in order to enjoy it, but knowledge of the previous happenings will help readers to understand certain things better.

Just like The Lazarus Gate, The Iscariot Sanction can be classified as a fantasy novel that combines fantasy, science fiction, weird science, dark fantasy, steampunk, horror and gothic elements with a dash of Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens. I admire the author's ability to combine these elements, because the story feels fully coherent, fresh and intriguing. There are no weak spots in it.

Here's a bit of information about the story:

- The story is told from the points of view of three agents of the Crown: John Hardwick, Lillian Hardwick and Sir Arthur Furnival.

- At the beginning of the story, Lord de Montford has visited Tsun Pen, 'The Artist', who is notorious for his cryptic messages, delivered through the medium of his paintings. After the visit he finds a whore and takes her to his friends, his cousins to be exact, who are eager to devour her.

- Sir Arthur Furnival is about to hold a séance, but receives an assignment from Apollo Lycea. His assistant will be Miss Lillian Hardwick who is celebrating her birthday. Together, they try to find out who is mysteriously killing prostitutes.

- John Hardwick is investigating a munitions factory that is supposed to be inoperative. During his investigations he meets Lord de Montford who doesn't want to surrender himself to John. They begin to fight and John falls through the floor. When he recovers his consciousness, he finds himself below the ground in the tunnels and discovers something terrifying.

- Soon Lillian, Arthur and John find out that they're dealing with enemies that are more ancient and deadlier than they thought: vampires that have previously kept themselves hidden from people. They realise that members of the secret order, the Knights Iscariot, are about to become a global threat...

This is the beginning of a highly entertaining story that flows effortlessly and grows richer and more complex towards the ending. The adventure and mystery elements add a lot of excitement to the story and keep readers turning pages.

Although the story is fast-paced and filled with various happenings, it doesn't feel rushed in any way, because the author takes his time to develop the characters and the happenings. He has found a balance between style and substance that is lacking from many novels.

Before I write more about certain things, I think it's good to say a few words about the phenomenon called the Awakening, because it's an important part of the story. The Awakening has affected ten percent of the population of England and also a smaller proportion of people around the world. This phenomenon is the direct result of a séance performed by a woman called Kate Fox, who revealed her 'spirit familiar' to her unsuspecting public and inadvertedly widened the Rift with unexpected results. After the séance some people gained brilliant, but limited skills in many things (they're called Intuitionists) while others gained psychic powers (they're called Majestics).

The world has changed a lot since the Awakening. The rise of Intuitionists has seen much of the world industrialised faster than anyone had ever thought possible and the Majestics are using their psychic powers to do various things. Mankind has had to adapt to these changes in a short time.

The characterisation is excellent and vivid. The protagonists are fully fleshed characters who have their own characteristics, lives and problems. The author gives each of them a unique voice. The minor characters are also interesting.

Here are a few words about the protagonists:

- Lillian Hardwick is a strong-willed young woman. She is satisfied being an agent of the Crown and detests her mother's attempts to make her settle down and have a family. She's good at martial arts, and she pursues her goals relentlessly. She finds herself in danger when she begins to suffer from nightmares and hears a voice talking in her head.

- John Hardwick is Lillian's older brother. He's a retired army captain who now works for the Apollo Lycea. He cares about his little sister.

- Sir Arthur Furnival is a celebrated medium who has psychic powers and holds séances. He has had psychic powers ever since he was a child, because he's been able to receive visitations from shades of the long dead. During the Awakening his powers multiplied and he became more powerful.

Some of the minor characters are especially interesting. For example, Kate Fox and Nikola Tesla are interesting characters because of the abilities and talents. I enjoyed reading about Kate Fox's psychic powers and how Sir Arthur felt about her. Reading about Nikola Tesla was intriguing, because he had been affected by the Awakening and had a great talent for electrical engineering. It was also interesting to read about John and Lillian's father, Lord Hardwick, because he was a formidable man.

The author's take on supernatural beings - vampires etc - feels fresh and differs from what most of us are used to reading about in many novels (he has managed to bring a lot of freshness to the vampire theme). In this novel, vampires have their own royal line, government and sovereign state. It was enjoyable to read about what the author wrote about vampire lore and the Knights Iscariot, because the Knights Iscariot claim to be descended from Judas Iscariot and his blood runs in their veins.

I like the way the author writes about women and their position in Victorian England. By writing about Lillian and her life, the author reveals how women were treated and what kind of things they had to tolerate. Women had little power in those days and they had very little to say in important matters, because men ruled the world.

There are many excellent and memorable scenes in this novel. The scene in which John discovers the foul and deformed beasts in the tunnel is captivating. I enjoyed reading about how he barely escaped and what decisions he made to save himself from being eaten and torn apart by the beasts. I think that dark fantasy and horror readers will be very pleased to read this scene. The scenes in which Lillian struggles with her nightmares and the voices in her head are fantastic. I also enjoyed reading about what had happened to Nikola Tesla and how his knowledge and inventions were to be used against the supernatural foes.

I want to mention separately that it was thrilling to read about the train ride to the north and its aftermath, because the impressively written grotesque and macabre sights were fascinating. I won't go into details about these sights, but I can mention that they will impress readers. (I'd like to mention more scenes, but I fear that I might end up revealing too much about the happenings.)

The author's prose is intriguingly vivid and vibrant. I like his writing style and prose, because he's a good storyteller who knows which strings to pull to make readers like his story. When I read this novel, I got the impression that the author enjoys writing and has done his best to deliver a memorable and intriguing story. He's capable of pulling you into the story (once you begin to read the story, you won't be able to stop reading it until you've reached the final page).

This novel has a dark and evocative atmosphere that will captivate many readers. Because I've always enjoyed the darker side of speculative fiction and love dark fantasy, I found myself being wholly captivated by the dark happenings. It's great that the author combines elements of steampunk, alternate history and dark fantasy to create a sinister atmosphere, because it works well.

What separates The Iscariot Sanction from other alternate reality and steampunk novels is Mark A. Latham's way of using old words, expressions and sayings to enhance the story and its atmosphere. I've noticed that only a few authors (James P. Blaylock, Vaughn Entwistle etc) use them as well as him. These old words, expressions and sayings emphasise the Victorian way of life and highlight how people interacted with each other.

If you're intrigued by British English, British society and Victorian way of life, you'll find yourself wholly mesmerised by the story. The author pays a lot of attention to atmosphere and minor details, and he tries to keep things as authentic and realistic as possible while he entertains his readers with fantastical elements and strange happenings. I admire his ability to write fluent entertainment that is speckled with historical authenticity and accurate descriptions of various places and different people. He has a stunning sense of time and place that makes you feel like you're truly in Victorian England.

Another thing that sets this novel apart from other novels is the author's ability to write about psychic powers in an absorbing way. His descriptions about the use of psychic powers are intriguingly detailed and informative. It was fascinating for me to read about the dark realm called the 'Eternal Night' and the dangerous things, the Other, that were native to it and drawn to intruders. He also writes well about etherium, which is a powerful stimulant that the Majestics use, and its effects on its users.

I also want to mention that the sense of impending doom and threat that was present in the previous novel can also be found in this novel. This time, however, the stakes are a bit higher, because the protagonists have to fight against an ancient and serious threat to mankind.

There's also a bit of witty British humour in this novel that I found charming, because it is used sparingly. The dry and witty humour lightens the story and highlights certain scenes. It's great that the author doesn't use humour too much, but has sprinkled it throughout the story.

As you probably guess by what I've written above, I was very impressed by The Iscariot Sanction. I give this novel full five stars on the scale from one to five stars, because I thoroughly enjoyed the story and found the characters to be interesting. I highly recommend The Iscariot Sanction to readers who enjoy reading speculative fiction and Victorian fiction, because it's an exceptionally entertaining and thrilling novel.

Mark A. Latham's The Iscariot Sanction is not to be missed by speculative fiction readers. It's one of the best novels available for readers who want to be entertained by a dark and addictive story. It's something special for those who love well written speculative fiction and expect to be surprised and thrilled by what they're about to read. Please, do yourself a favour and read it as soon as possible, because it may well be the best Victorian speculative fiction novel of the year.

Excellent and stunningly fresh entertainment!

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