Monday 25 November 2013

Book Review | Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

When a private envoy of the queen and member of Lord Carmichael's discreet service goes missing, Balfour and Meriwether are asked to look into the affair. They will find a labyrinth of dreams, horrors risen from hell, prophecy, sexual perversion, and an abandoned farmhouse on the moors outside Harrowmoor Sanitarium.

The earth itself will bare its secrets and the Empire itself will tremble in the face of the hidden dangers they discover, but the greatest peril is the one they have brought with them...


In recent years, the adventures of Balfour and Meriwether have been a rare yet redolent pleasure. Daniel Abraham's dashing duo have appeared in only two tales to date — 'The Emperor's Vengeance' and 'The Vampire of Kabul' — both of which I reread this week, the better to be ready to review what is certainly their best and most complex quest yet.

I really needn't have — happily, no prior knowledge is required by The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs — though it was a pleasure to immerse myself again in said secret histories, and this novella's revelatory resolution did prove particularly potent on the back of those stories.

Again per the precedent set by its predecessors, there is the sense that The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is but an episode in the larger canon of Balfour and Meriwether's collaborative careers as agents of Queen and country. Here, however, the episode is essentially supersized; to wit, Abraham is able to expand his narrative and develop his characters in a fairly fascinating fashion.

It begins inauspiciously, with news from their fellow servant of a blue rose affair:
Among all the concerns and intrigues that Lord Carmichael had the managing of, the blue rose affairs were the least palatable not for any moral or ethical failure — Balfour and Meriwether understood the near Jesuitical deformations of ethics and honour that the defense of the Empire could require — but rather because they were so often lacking in the rigor they both cultivated. When a housewife in Bath woke screaming that a fairy had warned her of a threat against the Queen, it was a blue rose affair. When a young artist lost his mind and slaughtered prostitutes, painting in their blood to open a demonic gate, it was a blue rose affair. When a professor of economics was tortured to the edge of madness by dreams of an ancient and sleeping god turning foul and malefic eyes upon the human world, it was a blue rose affair. And so almost without fail, they were wastes of time and effort, ending in confirmations of hysteria that posed no threat and offered no benefit to anyone sane. (pp.10-11)
In this instance, Balfour and Meriwether are assured that a clear and present threat is in evidence, though Lord Carmichael is unable to explain its profane nature. He only advises that Daniel Winters, the last agent dispatched to attend this blue rose-related business, is missing, and if anyone can explain what has happened to him, Michael Caster can.

"A soldier, adventurer, explorer, and invert," (p.54) Caster has in light of that latter fact been "retired to Harrowmoor Sanitarium for the rest cure." (p.12) A long train ride out of London later, Meriwether visits with him whilst Balfour attempts to track their actual target down. Too late, Caster explains that he's been plagued by nightmares of what lies beneath the very abandoned barn Balfour has just arrived at:
"Great beasts sleep there, and strange intelligences battle in lightless subterranean wars. I have seen thing that no waking eye has ever seen. Parasite worms that dig into the living flesh of their enemies and swallow up the brains, then use the corpse as a mechanism, riding it as you or I might sit a horse. Toothed grubs that chew their mindless way through basalt and brimstone, weakening the foundations of the world itself. And the dogs. Always and without fail, the dogs." (pp.29-30)
What follows is a race against time — indeed deep time — as Meriwether attempts to rescue his captured partner from a fate worse than death. Worse, I dare say, than damnation...

Their separation is obviously unfortunate, but every cloud has a silver lining, and it's a real pleasure to see the duo divided. In their earlier adventures Balfour and Meriwether have worked as a resolute unit, and been hard to tell apart beyond their pick of killing implements: Meriwether has had his paired revolvers and Balfour a great brace of knives. Absent this superficial difference, I truly couldn't have told you which gentleman was which. In The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs, however, Abraham pays especial attention to developing Meriwether, and his uniqueness casts Balfour in a new light too.

This added depth also serves to elevate the stakes of the entire affair. In the course of 'The Emperor's Vengeance' and 'The Vampire of Kabul' I never questioned whether our heroes would save the day or die trying, yet more than once I found myself wondering if The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs was to be a coda of sorts to the twosome's occasional tales, as 'His Last Bow' was for Holmes and Watson — to whom Balfour and Meriwether bear a perfectly pleasant and respectful resemblance.

Though I did delight in Balfour and Meriwether's earlier adventures, The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is ultimately much less disposable than those stories. It marks a masterful expansion of our heroes and chronicles a markedly more absorbing narrative than the simple steampunk set-pieces they've happened upon previously. Of particular note is Abraham's handling of homosexuality. Considered "a sin and an abomination" (p.33) at the time this tale takes place, the author refuses to tip-toe around the topic in the manner many might, addressing it head-on instead — to tremendous effect.

Daniel Abraham is a busy man — one of the very busiest in the business — but on the back of Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs, I can only hope he has many more of these stories in store. And to boot, given the good use he puts the extra room to: the bigger they are, the better.


Balfour and Meriwether in the Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
by Daniel Abraham

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Subterranean Press

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