The universe of self-published fiction has its vast and empty reaches of nothing much at all, and a scatter of planets that can appear less interesting the closer you approach. It also has its stars. This book is one of them.
“Disgraced and demoted Commandant Farbell Gifford, terror of the Yangtse opium trade, is sent home in disgrace to command the run down Bristol branch of the Excise and Detection Service. A murder on his first day quickly reveals the limitations of his subordinates and faces him with the triple challenge of finding the culprit, reforming the department and, more urgently, buying a new boat.”
Gifford is a man of his times, forthright and impulsive, more concerned with delivering justice than upholding the law. He is also complicated and conflicted – he risked his life and career to save the concubine he loved, but she is still his concubine. Gifford’s world is a 19th century Bristol where Britain is teetering between slavery and abolition, The Chinese Triads run the opium trade, and British politics and economic power are supported by something darker, an occult shadow Gifford struggles fathom.
Mechanical spiders, steam cars and a Royal Air Force of powered dirigibles lend alternative history colour which O’Conner deftly weaves into the plot as things to be explored, used, and savoured. His opponents and problems are many – the Triads, vested interest, brute violence, a sophisticated far-eastern criminality, and Gifford’s own impulsive provocative nature.
O’Connor gives him some help – a delightfully robust and individual crew of ne’er-do-wells form his men in the Excise. Old hands with smarts and handy fists, greenhorns who learn fast, and the bizarre and resourceful Bulmershe – half man, half something that came from the marsh, a truly original and fascinating character that threatens to steal the book from Gifford.
That first murder soon leads to another. Gifford is sucked into a beautifully described world rich in character and characters, fast-paced, intriguing, and occasionally thoughtful. It has been a long while since I last read a book that was so engaging and entertaining, with real page-turning excitement and a real sense of jeopardy.
There’s a huge amount to like about this book. If I would compare it to one other, it would be Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. If I was to criticise Farbell Gifford I would say that there are a few minor loose ends that don’t resolve, and the story, while complete in itself more or less stops instead of ends. On the other hand this promises a sequel and for me that is no bad thing.
Farbell Gifford is a delight of a book, a true gem that deserves to find an audience and be appreciated for what it is – a lovely piece of story-telling.
The Corruption of Farbell Gifford, by Damian P. O’Connor,
Paperback and ebook