Turnbull displays a sympathetic touch for the issues faced by a mixed race woman in the British Raj without sacrificing the sense of wonder appropriate to narratives of steam punk worlds and gentle-person detectives.
This collection contains the first three Maliha Anderson Mysteries: Murder out of the Blue, Blood Sky at Night, and Halo Round the Moon. Every effort has been made in this review to avoid spoilers, but mystery fans are often insightful so there are no guarantees there are no unconscious revelations.
Born to an Indian Brahmin mother and a Scottish engineer father, Maliha Anderson has been raised in the best public school tradition and admitted to polite society, but never allowed to forget she isn’t white. Even when not faced with subtle prejudice from both sides of her heritage, her involvement in solving a murder at Roedean brings either disdain for unladylike behaviour or prurient interest. Seeking only to return home, her plans to put her past behind her are thrown into disarray by a mysterious death on the airship upon which she is travelling.
While Turnbull correctly suggests these novels are more crime mystery than steam punk escapade, his fusion of India at the height of the British Empire with anti-gravity and other tropes of speculative history is highly skilled.
Based firmly in this engaging alternate history but powered by human flaws all too familiar in the real world, the mysteries are filled with twists and reversals without becoming either convoluted or confusing for the sake of it.
Their only potential weakness is that point of view characters occasionally notice things or arrange events off page, and make no reference to them until they are relevant. Readers who draw most of their enjoyment from solving the mystery alongside the detective might therefore irritated by the revelation of evidence or the convenient appearance of pre-arranged assistance. However, this is a minor issue compared to the tight plotting.
Maliha herself is as well written as the background and plot. Intelligent enough not only to recognise that choosing one side of her heritage or the other is always going to be a poor choice but also that the alternatives are worse, she would be an interesting enough character for that alone. The addition of her plausible struggle between the propriety she wishes to display, the curiosity of her youth, and her innate sense of justice, makes her both sympathetic and rounded.
The supporting characters are similarly solid. Whether British or Indian, high- or low-class, they possess a similar sense of their place in a very restrictive society while never being defined solely by it.
Turnbull’s skill in characterisation is particularly evident in the recurring characters across the series. Even with hindsight, the characters who will return in later books are neither given special treatment when first encountered nor introduced with obvious expansion of their histories when they return. Where this uncertainty over who is going to be important later might add a pleasant depth to any work, it is especially powerful in the unexpected-victim-heavy world of crime mysteries.
Overall, I enjoyed these novels immensely. I recommend them both to readers seeking a solid speculative or historical thriller and to those interested in the perspective of those trapped outside their culture.
I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a fair review.